What information about my past housing will I need when I apply for housing?
Many housing agencies and subsidized landlords get information from current and prior landlords to determine whether you will be a good tenant. They may ask you to list every place you have lived in recent years, including addresses and contact information for the landlord. They may also ask you to sign a form giving them permission to contact your former landlords in order to ask for information about you as a tenant.
If you leave out a prior landlord on your housing application and this is discovered, a housing agency may deny your application due to misrepresentation or failure to provide requested information. If you are worried about a bad landlord reference, read What steps can I take if I think that I may get a bad landlord reference?
If there were times when you were not renting an apartment, you should identify these gaps in your rental history on your application. A housing agency or landlord may deny you housing if they believe any gaps to be an attempt to hide a negative landlord reference. So you should be sure to explain gaps in your rental history, such as if you were living with family or friends, living in a shelter, were homeless, or some other situation.
You may likely be asked for documents to support the information you put on the application about your past housing.76 It helps to get documents together ahead of time and make several copies, so you always have a set of what you need on hand. Although housing authorities should accept your application even if you do not have all of your supporting documents, it is best to submit as much documentation as possible with your original application.
Keep in mind that while a housing agency or subsidized landlord can ask for documents to support the information you put on your application, under state law they can only request documents that are reliable and reasonably obtainable.77
How do I prove where I lived before?
A housing agency or subsidized landlord may send a form to each of your former landlords asking them for a reference about you as a tenant. As long as the landlord returns this form, you should not need any more proof that you lived there. If the landlord does not return this form or if there is information on the form that is not clear or needs follow-up, the housing agency or subsidized landlord may want to call the previous landlord. If you were living in an institution or group home, you can ask the agency that ran the institution or group home to verify the dates you lived there and send it to the housing agency or subsidized landlord. For this reason, make sure that you have as good information as possible about your landlords’ names, addresses, and phone numbers.
To prove where you have lived, you can use rent receipts, mail, bills (such as utility bills), bank statements, medical records, driver's licenses, passports, or other business documents listing your previous addresses. Some of these documents proving where you lived or stayed may be found in welfare, food stamp, medical, or school records.
If you have no documents like these, get written statements from friends, family, neighbors, clergy, or anyone else who can say where you stayed during a particular time. For example, if you did not have your own apartment because you were living in someone else's home, you should get a written statement from that person saying that you lived with her and what bills you paid, such as room and board, telephone, or a share of the utilities. The statement should include the dates that you stayed there. Although you do not have to, you can ask that the person who wrote the statement have it notarized. This means that the person who wrote the statement swears under the pains and penalties of perjury in front of the notary public that everything in the statement is true. The housing agency may ask you for an address and phone number for this person in case follow-up is required.
If you cannot get a written statement from someone you were living with because, for example, you were living in your boyfriend's apartment and he abused you, explain this to the housing agency. They should not require you to contact the abuser. You may need to provide proof that this is the case, such as a copy of a restraining order, a letter from a social worker at a battered women's program, or the District Attorney's office if your abuser is being prosecuted.
When do I have to try to contact my former landlord for a reference?
If you are applying for state-funded housing and a housing agency sends a request to your former landlord for a reference but the landlord does not respond, the housing agency or subsidized landlord can ask that you use your 'best efforts' to get the landlord to send the reference to the housing agency.78
"Best efforts" means that you try to get current contact information for the former landlord or make direct contact and ask him or her to provide the requested reference to the housing authority. It is a good idea to document your efforts to contact your former landlord.
There is no similar requirement to use "best efforts" if you are applying for federally funded housing.
It is often a good idea to contact former landlords and tell them that they will be receiving a reference request from the housing provider and ask them to complete and return it promptly. This also may give you a 'heads up' if your former landlord is going to give any negative information in the reference, so that you can be prepared to counteract it.
If you use your best efforts to get a former landlord to reply and she does not, you will need to cooperate with the housing agency or landlord to provide other information that you will be a good tenant. For example, you can get letters from employers, clergy, shelter staff, doctors, or social workers to show that you are responsible and will meet the terms of the lease.79 Keep in mind that under state law a housing agency can only request documents that are reliable and reasonably obtainable.80 If you do not use your best efforts, a housing agency or landlord can deny you housing.
Many landlords and housing authorities subscribe to services that report evictions filed in court. These services collect information from courts. The information they collect can be incomplete, inaccurate, and misleading. One such reporting service is a national company called First Advantage SafeRent. It collects information from sources such as public records and landlord-tenant court filings. Before you begin your housing search, you should obtain your own copy of your consumer report from First Advantage SafeRent to make sure there is no inaccurate or incomplete information (see How can I get a copy of my report?). If, for example, the report shows that there was an eviction case filed against you, it may not show that the case was dismissed or that the landlord allowed you to stay in your apartment under an agreement or that you won the case.
If your report does not show the complete picture, go to the appropriate courts to make copies of all documents that show that the information that First Advantage SafeRent has in the report is inaccurate. Keep a copy for yourself (to use with housing applications) and mail a copy toFirst Advantage SafeRent, with a request that First Advantage SafeRent correct its records.
If an eviction case is reported, you have the right to have the reporting service attach a statement to all reports explaining your side of the case. For example, in your statement you should distinguish whether an eviction was for 'fault' or was "no-fault" (where a landlord is evicting a tenant who has done nothing wrong). Also, if it was a 'fault' eviction and the case was settled or there was an agreement for judgment and the court never made a determination that the tenant was at fault, this should be noted in a statement. In addition, if the case is more than 7 years old, it should not be listed at all. For more information about how to correct errors or misleading information in your report, see How do I correct errors or old information on my credit report?
If you know that a particular landlord will give you a bad reference, it may be tempting to leave that landlord off the list. However, if you leave off a landlord and the housing agency or subsidized landlord finds out about that landlord, you may be denied housing based on fraud, misrepresentation, or failure to provide complete information on your housing application.
You will be given an opportunity to challenge a denial of housing and present evidence to show that you would be a good tenant in spite of a bad landlord reference or other problems on your application.81 For more information, see Challenging a Denial of Housing.
Negotiate a simple reference
If you are afraid that a former landlord may unfairly give you a bad reference in retaliation for something you did—for example, calling the board of health—one thing to do is to try to negotiate with that landlord to get a very simple reference letter that says you paid the rent on time.
Show the landlord is being unfair
If the landlord refuses to give you a simple reference, you can collect information or documents that show your side of the story and how the prior landlord's bad reference is unfair. Be ready to give copies to the housing agency or subsidized landlord if the issue comes up. (Remember always to keep copies for yourself.)
Show circumstances have changed
You can also gather evidence that would show certain circumstances that explain a bad landlord reference, for example:
- You did not pay rent for a certain period of time because of poor conditions in the apartment.82 Gather photographs, board of health reports, or statements from people who saw the condition of the apartment.
- A medical or financial problem that caused you to get behind in your rent that has been resolved.
- Disturbances in your apartment happened because of abuse you were facing. Gather statements of counselors who knew about your situation, police reports, or restraining orders.
- Circumstances in your family have changed and a household member who caused disturbances no longer lives with you.
- You have given away a pet that you had in violation of a no-pet rule.
- You are now receiving social services which will enable you to comply with your lease.
Ask for a reasonable accommodation
If a bad landlord reference is related to a disability, you can request reasonable accommodation from the housing agency to address concerns about your application. Although the law does not clearly define what reasonable accommodation means, in general it requires landlords to make changes in rules, policies, or practices so that a tenant may make full use of his or her home.83
Alcohol dependency, past drug addiction, and mental or physical illnesses are all disabilities that may entitle you to a reasonable accommodation. In a request for reasonable accommodations, you explain a bad landlord reference by describing how your disability affected your past tenancy and the relationship between you and your previous landlord. You can also give the housing authority or subsidized landlord information about how circumstances have changed; for example,new treatments or medications that address a prior problem or information about your participation in or completion of a rehabilitation program. For more information, see Reasonable Accommodations.
Can a landlord ask me about my utility payment history?
If you will be required to pay for gas or electricity in the public or subsidized housing unit, a housing agency or landlord can ask you for information about your history of paying your utility bills. But remember that under state law they can only request documents that are reliable and reasonably obtainable.84
If your payment history shows that your utilities were shut off for nonpayment, be prepared to show that you will pay the utility bills if you get an apartment in public or subsidized housing. For example, one reason you may not have been able to pay utility bills in the past was because you could not afford them and your high rent at the same time. When your rent is set at the lower public or subsidized housing level, you will be able to afford the utilities.
Other factors affecting your future ability to pay for utilities might be that your household's income may be higher now, or that someone else who was responsible for paying the utilities but failed to do so is no longer a member of your household.
If the reason for the utility nonpayment was related to a disability, you can ask a housing agency to consider that your prior nonpayment was caused by your disability. Inform them that since then you have taken steps to get treatment for the disability or to otherwise make sure that your bills will be paid, such as by having a representative payee for your disability benefits.85 The housing agency's or landlord's agreement would be considered a reasonable accommodation.
If you are afraid that information that you are applying for housing in a particular community will pass from a former landlord to a person who has abused you and the abuser will find you, you can ask the housing agency or landlord to waive this part of the application process with this particular landlord for safety reasons. You will need to provide proof about why you want to contact a particular landlord, such as a copy of your restraining order or a letter from a social worker at a battered women’s program or from the District Attorney’s office if your abuser is being prosecuted.
What if I have no landlord history?
The purpose of a landlord's checking your rental history is to be assured that you will be a good tenant. If you have no prior rental history, you can use other sources of information to show that you will pay rent on time, will keep your apartment in good condition, and will not disturb your neighbors or destroy property.
For example, regular payment of other bills, cell phones, medical payments, car loans or insurance, can demonstrate your ability and willingness to pay rent on time. You can also get letters of reference regarding your character and reliability from employers, clergy, shelter staff, doctors, or social workers to show that you will pay your rent and meet the other terms of the lease, including taking care of your apartment and respecting the rights of others.
Housing authorities may reject your application because of a prior debt you owe to it or to any other housing authority. These debts are usually related to a claim that you failed to pay rent or repair charges when you lived in public housing. The federal Section 8 rules expressly allow denial of an application for debts owed to housing authorities,86 but there are no federal regulations dealing with this issue for other programs. For other programs, the housing authorities may consider whether your debt to a housing authority indicates that you are a poor credit risk or are otherwise an undesirable tenant.
In practice, most housing authorities will tell you that prior debt to a housing program must be paid off in order to be eligible for assistance. Unfortunately, housing authorities often wait until you are at the top of the waiting list to tell you about the debt, leaving a short period of time to pay it off. Therefore, if you have ever lived in public housing, it is a good idea to check with your former housing authority about prior debts when you are beginning the process of applying for housing. This way, if you find out that you owe a debt, you can arrange to gradually pay it off while you are on waiting lists.
If the debt owed is old, there may be some arguments that it shouldn’t be relied on as a reason to deny you.87
What if I was evicted from public or subsidized housing or terminated from the Section 8 program?
It depends on the circumstances. Section 8 programs must deny applicants who were previously in the Section 8 program and evicted for a serious lease violation.88 Federal public housing program must deny applicants who were previously evicted from federally assisted housing for drug related activity (within three years) or for being convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine there.89 But generally, if the eviction was related to nonpayment, or to some negative activity, housing programs are allowed to deny applicants. For more information, see Challenging a Denial of Housing.
76 Federal: 42 U.S.C. § 1437f(k); 24 C.F.R. §§ 960.203 and 960.259; State: 760 C.M.R. § 5.12.
77 State: 760 C.M.R. § 5.12(1); Federal: 24 C.F.R. § 960.259.
78 760 C.M.R. § 5.12(2).
79 760 C.M.R. § 5.12(2).
80 State: 760 C.M.R. § 5.12(1); Federal: 24 C.F.R. § 960.259.
81 Federal public housing: 24 C.F.R. § 960.208(a), applicant must be presented with opportunity for hearing; Section 8 voucher program: 24 C.F.R. § 982.554(b), applicant shall be given opportunity for review and opportunity to present objections to adverse decision; State: 760 C.M.R. § 5.08(2), applicant must be permitted to show mitigating circumstances prior to disqualification; 760 C.M.R. § 5.13(1), applicant shall be entitled to private conference. See generally Challenging a Denial of Housing.
82 Huezo v. Chelsea Hous. Auth., 25 Mass. L. Rptr. 22 (Mass. Super. 2008) (Housing Authority cannot deny applicant for previous nonpayment of rent where evidence shows that rent was withheld in response to poor housing conditions under M.G.L. c. 239, § 8).
83 The federal Fair Housing Act requires "reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford such person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling." 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(3)(B). See 24 C.F.R. § 100.204. The concept of "reasonable accommodations" was drawn from § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794 (see 53 Federal Register 45003, Nov. 7, 1988), which prohibits discrimination against disabled people in federally assisted housing. State law, at G.L. c. 151B, § 4(7A), also includes the failure to make reasonable accommodations as an act of illegal discrimination. This means, as under the federal law, that a person with a disability has a right to expect her landlord to reasonably adjust rules or policies when necessary to allow her to live comfortably in her home.
84 State: 760 C.M.R. § 5.12(1); Federal: 24 C.F.R. § 960.259.
85 Federal:24 C.F.R. § 100.204; State: G.L. c. 151B, § 4(7A)(2).
86Federal regulations for the Section 8 program expressly allow denial for this ground. 24 C.F.R. § 982.552(c)(1)(v) and (vi). There are no regulations addressing this issue for other programs. However, a housing authority may consider that a debt owed to a housing authority is indicative of a poor credit history.
87 See 24 C.F.R. § 982.552(c)(1)(v), giving discretion to PHAs to deny assistance based on rent "currently" owed. A federal court in Pennsylvania held that a Housing Authority could not rely on an almost 20 year-old debt to deny an applicant, where the Housing Authority did not pursue collection of the debt. Solomon v. Hous. Auth. of Pittsburgh, 2:06-CV-01155 (W.D.Pa. September 18, 2006). See also 49 Federal Register 12233 (Mar. 29, 1984) (providing that past debt to a PHA is not grounds for denial of assistance: "The PHA may not deny assistance if the debt has been paid, or is not valid for any reason (e.g. a rent claim extinguished by the statute of limitations)"), reaffirmed by 60 Federal Register 34660 (July 3, 1995). In Massachusetts, the statute of limitations in general is six years for a contract, but twenty years if a housing authority received a court ordered judgment concerning the debt.
88 24 C.F.R. § 982.552(b)(2).
89 42 U.S.C. § 1437n(f); 24 C.F.R. § 960.204(a)(3); 24 C.F.R. § 960.204(a)(1). See also 24 C.F.R. § 5.100 for definition of “drug-related criminal activity,” and 21 U.S.C. §802, which defines the term “controlled substance.”
Produced by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute Last updated December 2009