There has been and will continue to be much ado about immigration. The rights of immigrants both documented and undocumented will continue to be in the news. What implications does all of this have for landlords? Can an undocumented immigrant legally rent property in the United States? What’s your liability if you rent to someone who doesn’t have appropriate documentation to prove he or she is here legally?
I can imagine that on the issue of renting to immigrants, you likely fall within one of three categories:
• You never considered the issue
• You don’t care who they are and where they come from so long as they pay the rent, take care of the property and don’t disturb the neighbors
• Your political beliefs dictate that it would be morally wrong to rent to anyone who cannot prove that they are legal residents of the United States
Regardless of your personal opinions or political bent, you should know that unlike employment law, nothing in housing law makes it illegal to rent to someone who is not in the country with proper documentation.
Some jurisdictions around the country have tried to make it a crime, however, this has not been attempted federally and to the best of our knowledge, all of the laws that were passed elsewhere in the country either have already been overturned or are in the process of being challenged in court.
People living in the U.S. who are either here legally but are not U.S. citizens or who are here without documentation have many basic rights. If you deny housing or otherwise discriminate in the level of service provided to applicants and residents because of their race, color or national origin as well as other protected classes at the federal or state levels, you have violated the law – regardless of whether or not the person lives here legally.
An applicant’s immigration or citizen status simply is not a relevant factor in performing rental, credit or criminal background checks. As always, be careful of your assumptions. Assuming some people “look like” they’re here illegally and others don’t can lead to violations of the fair housing laws.
Denying applicants simply because of where they’re from (either the U.S. or another nation) has a disproportionate impact on national origin as a protected class and is illegal. Be careful, too, of assumptions about household make up based on race or national origin. Don’t assume “certain kinds of people” have larger or extended families and base your rental decisions on that. Set reasonable occupancy standards and enforce them equally across all of your rental properties.
So what are your responsibilities? The Department of Homeland security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) make no requirements of landlords in this regard. You are not an ICE or DHS agent. You’re not expected to be an expert on all documentation needed to verify that someone entered the country legally. Frankly, I wouldn’t want the liability that may come with trying to play cops and robbers.
So how do you screen someone who either has no documentation or has alternative documents such as a student or work visa or Individual Taxpayer 10 Number? If the expense of a manual background check costs you more, you’d be advised not to pass the higher cost to the applicant. At first glance, this appears to be a legitimate business expense. But it can be argued that it disproportionately impacts national origin as a protected class.
For additional suggestions on alternative screening methods that are aimed at verifying the applicant – that they are who they say they are, that they pay their bills on time and to check their past and criminal histories, visit FHCO.org/pdfs/suggestedAltDocs.pdf.
What if an applicant provides a fake social security number when they apply to rent from you? Well, in that case, they have lied on their application and can be denied or evicted on that basis.
We never recommend immigrants lie or use a false identification number. And we advise landlords to be careful to not treat applicants and residents differently because of where they come from.
Jo Becker is with the Fair Housing Council of Oregon,FHCO.org. Reprinted with permission of the Wisconsin Apartment Association News.