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How Screening Works

Produced by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Reviewed March 2016

What is the purpose of tenant screening in public and privately-owned subsidized housing?

In general, the purpose of tenant screening is not to determine your eligibility for a certain program, but to determine if you are likely to be a good tenant. A good tenant is one who:

  • Pays the rent on time.
  • Complies with the lease.
  • Keeps an apartment in good condition.
  • Does not disturb neighbors or damage property.
  • Does not engage in criminal activity, including using illegal drugs.
  • Provides information reasonably necessary to evaluate an application.
  • Has not committed fraud in other subsidized housing programs or in the current application.

Housing authorities and owners of multifamily subsidized housing have written policies which include procedures related to tenant screening.1

Who does screening?

If you are applying for public housing, the housing authority conducts the screening.

If you are applying for a  tenant-based voucher through the Section 8 voucher program, the job of screening is generally left up to the private landlord, though housing authorities usually screen Section 8 applicants for criminal background, prior eviction from public housing or termination from a Section 8 program, and for debts owed to a public housing authority. Housing authorities may have additional screening criteria for Section 8 vouchers if they adopt them properly

If you are applying for privately owned multifamily subsidized housing that has a project-based subsidy, the individual owner or the management company that runs the housing conducts the screening.

If a housing agency or landlord finds negative information, will I be denied housing?

It depends what the information is and what the housing program is. There are certain situations where a housing agency or subsidized landlord has no choice and must deny you housing.

But in many situations, if there is negative information, housing agencies and subsidized landlords have the option (discretion) to decide whether or not to deny your application. For this reason, you need to be prepared to provide positive information that explains the negative information and shows that you will be a good tenant. This chapter gives you specific ideas about what to do regarding criminal records, credit reports, and landlord references.

Also if you are denied housing or a voucher due to negative information, you can challenge (appeal) this denial. For more information on the appeal process, see Challenging a Denial of Housing.

Are there special protections for victims of domestic violence?

Yes. A federal law provides important protection for victims of domestic violence who are applying for certain federally assisted housing.2 The law provides that being a victim of domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, or sexual assault cannot be a reason for being denied federal public housing, a Section 8 voucher, or federal assisted housing.3

The law also provides organizations and individuals working to protect the rights of domestic violence victims with some new tools to address screening barriers that prevent victims from getting into assisted housing. The law recognizes that abusers frequently manipulate finances in an effort to control their partners, and, as a result, people facing abuse often lack steady income, good credit history, landlord references, and a current address—all of which are necessary to obtain long-term permanent housing.4 The law seeks to take away these types of barriers by:

  • Requiring public housing authorities to include in their one- and five-year plans policies and programs that will help children and victims of domestic violence obtain and keep housing.5
  • Providing new grant programs to develop services and policies that (a) help victims of domestic violence who may be disqualified because of negative rental, credit, or criminal histories become eligible for housing assistance; and (b) allow applicants to provide incomplete rental and employment histories, if providing such information would endanger their safety or the safety of their children.6

Can I find out what information a housing agency or subsidized landlord has about me?

Yes. A housing agency or subsidized landlord should share with you all of the information it has relied on to make its decision to deny your application.7

If you are challenging a denial of housing, ask to see your application file at the same time that you request a hearing to challenge the denial.

If the housing agency or subsidized landlord intends to deny you housing based on a criminal offender record information report (CORI, for short), they must provide you with a copy of the CORI that they received and give you an opportunity to challenge the accuracy or relevance of the CORI before they make a final decision.8 For information about what you can do if you have a negative criminal history, see What can I do if I have a negative criminal history or a history of substance abuse? 


1 Federal public housing: 24 C.F.R. § 960.202 (requiring tenant selection policies Federal multifamily housing: 24 C.F.R. § 5.655(b)(2) (requiring tenant selection plan HUD Multifamily Occupancy Handbook 4350.3 REV-1, CHG-3 (June 2009), Chapter 4 (requiring applicant screening criteria State public housing: 760 C.M.R. § 5.08 (setting forth tenant selection standards to be applied).

2 The Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act of 2005 ("VAWA 2005,") Pub. L. No. 109-162, 119 Stat. 2960, as amended by the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (“VAWA 2013”), Pub. L. No. 113-4. 127 Stat. 102.  See generally 42 U.S.C. §§ 14043e et seq.

3 Section 8 vouchers: 42 U.S.C. § 1437f(o)(6)(B), amended by Pub. L. No. 109-162, 119 Stat. 2960 at § 606; Federal public housing: 42 U.S.C. § 1437d(c)(3), amended by Pub. L. No. 109-162, 119 Stat. 2960 at § 607; Project-based Section 8: 42 U.S.C. § 1437f(c)(9)(A). See generally 24 C.F.R. Part 5, Subpart L (§§ 5.2001 et seq.). VAWA 2013 extended protections to other federal housing programs. For VAWA 2013, see 78 Fed. Reg. 47,717 (Aug. 6, 2013). Final VAWA 2013 regulations are likely to be implemented in 2016.

4 42 U.S.C. § 14043e.

5 42 U.S.C. § 1437c-1.

6 42 U.S.C. § 14043e-4(f)(2).

7 Federal: 24 C.F.R. § 5.903(f) (criminal records State: 760 C.M.R. § 5.13 (1) (e). See generally the Massachusetts Fair Information Practices Act G.L. c. 66A, § 2(i), 1st sentence. See also 760 C.M.R. §§ 8.01 and 8.04(6), which provide that a local housing authority, redevelopment authority, or any other person or entity which has a written contract or agreement with a local housing authority or redevelopment authority, must give a "data subject" or his/her duly authorized representative access to any personal data concerning him/her.

If the property is multifamily subsidized housing administered by MassHousing, ask for a copy of its Tenant Selection Plan to see whether there is a provision that the owner must disclose records in accordance with the state privacy act. This provision may state, "The Agent shall not disclose any personal information contained in its records to any persons or agencies other than the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency or other authorized government agency unless the individual about whom information is requested has given written consent to such disclosure, or unless disclosure is otherwise in accordance with provisions in the state or federal privacy acts." There may also be a provision that states: "It is the policy of the Agent to guard the privacy of individuals in accordance with the Federal Privacy Act of 1974 and the Massachusetts Privacy Act, and to ensure the protection of records maintained by the property concerning the applicants or tenants."

8 Federal: 42 U.S.C. § 1437d (q); 24 C.F.R. § 5.903; State: 803 C.M.R. §§ 5.11(1), 5.15. See also 803 C.M.R. § 5.11 (3), which allows access to an individual‘s advocate with a written release.

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