San Francisco Tightens Use of Criminal Data for Landlords

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Online leasing provider helps housing providers comply with new “ban the box” rules for criminal background checks on low-income renters

San Francisco
Partnering with On-Site provides our organization better tools to make fair, consistent decisions

Ask your prospective renters if they have ever been convicted of a crime and it could end up costing you.

Under a new Fair Chance ordinance, signed into effect by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee this month, affordable housing providers in San Francisco must first confirm that applicants meet initial qualification criteria such as credit and rental history before considering a criminal background check.

The new regulation aims to make it easier for applicants with criminal histories to find the housing they need without being automatically excluded due to a criminal past. An estimated 65 million Americans have criminal histories and of those, seven million are from California, according to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors.

The regulation further prohibits affordable housing providers from inquiring about an applicant’s criminal history on an initial rental application form and requires affordable housing providers to post a special notice prominently on their websites and leasing offices describing an applicant’s rights under the Fair Chance ordinance.

The law goes into effect August 13 and applies to any housing provider in the city whose buildings have received city funding for subsidized housing. After a warning for the first violation, penalties for not complying with the ordinance are $50 for the second violation and $100 for the third and subsequent violations.

Amidst increasing gentrification and the limited availability of affordable housing in San Francisco, a single government subsidized rental can receive dozens of applications per day, say supporters of the legislation. This traffic means housing providers can quickly end up paying thousands of dollars in penalties if they aren’t careful.

The new regulation is only the latest victory for the so-called “Ban the Box” movement, which takes its name from various laws that prohibit certain employers from using application forms that ask about criminal history with a yes/no checkbox. The state of California is among ten states with this restriction for hiring, though here it is limited to government employers and contractors. Several cities have also joined the movement including New York City, Boston and Seattle.

While the “Ban the Box” movement primarily focuses on screening job applications, San Francisco is second only to Newark, New Jersey to extend the law to resident screening and chances are that it won’t be the last.

In light of this trend, technology providers can assist housing providers with compliance., a leading provider of online leasing software, says that its platform is well-suited to adapt to such a changing landscape. The company’s tools include online rental applications, tenant screening, forms management and websites for property managers – all elements affected by the Fair Chance ordinance.

For one, On-Site’s resident qualification platform pulls from data sources in a cascading order: the system may only process a criminal background check after initial factors such as a satisfactory credit check have been met. Further, its centralized document management engine can ensure that the forms in use are current – whether the forms are online or in paper form. As a managed service, On-Site maintains a library of certified documents that are updated as laws change, effectively banning the box as necessary. And housing providers can keep their website up to speed with the required disclosures with On-Site’s content management system that’s simple to update.

“Our key to success has been an adaptive foundation,” says Jake Harrington, On-Site’s CEO. “Our primary selling point in moving the leasing process online is ease of use for landlords and renters. But another key benefit is quality control and ensured compliance when new laws move the goalposts for our customers.”

Based in Silicon Valley, On-Site has a large presence in major West coast markets as well as cities across the country where housing providers face changing sets of guidelines. In 2010, for example, New York City passed the Tenant Fair Chance Act, requiring landlords of all housing types to call out the source of information they use to screen tenants and spell out certain tenant rights on forms and signs in the leasing office.

“We were very proactive in educating our customers and making the changes,” says Steven Gabel, an account manager working in Manhattan for On-Site. “We even printed them glossy signs to frame on the wall.”

Dianna Ingle is anticipating San Francisco’s upcoming restrictions. A customer of On-Site, Ingle serves as vice president of EAH Housing, a nonprofit housing corporation that manages low-income housing communities across California and Hawaii serving more than 20,000 renters.

“Our mission is to create and promote quality affordable housing,” Ingle says. “We screen carefully to find residents who will respect their housing and respect their neighbors. But keeping up with the complex rules and managing compliance becomes more complex each year.”

In addition to the disclosure rules, San Francisco’s upcoming Fair Chance ordinance confirms guidance provided to low-income housing providers by the federal government last year on the use of criminal background checks on rental applicants. The laws mandate that landlords establish clear qualification standards for the types of crimes that make an applicant unsuitable as a tenant, rather than saying no to everyone with any sort of rap sheet.

“Partnering with On-Site provides our organization better tools to make fair, consistent decisions,” says Ingle. She notes that On-Site has a team of researchers to investigate each applicant’s criminal history, classifies its disposition and severity, and then scores that against a community’s criteria. The company is also proactive in helping applicants understand what is on their background check, correct any errors and in many cases, salvage a renting opportunity that outdated or misfiled information would have derailed. The result is an increase in approved applications of up to 18 percent, the company says.

“Thanks to technology and service, we are more confident in our leasing decisions,” said Ingle. “As for the city’s new Ban the Box, we’re already in compliance well ahead of the deadline. You can’t put a price on that sort of peace of mind.”

About On-Site
Founded in 1999 with technology and service 100% based in the U.S., On-Site is bringing the apartment industry up-to-speed with what today’s consumer expects from the renting experience: modern technology and a focus on usability. On-Site’s end-to-end platform covers everything from community marketing and renter qualification to lease contract generation with e-signatures and online storage. Plus integrated communication hubs to drive resident retention after move-in. The result is a simplified rental experience that leads to greater customer satisfaction and translates directly to the positive side of the balance sheet. For more information about On Site’s leasing solutions, visit or contact one of On-Site’s online leasing experts at (855) 667-6500.

Link to full text of the San Francisco Fair Chance ordinance.

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Eric Basart
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Dianna Ingle
EAH Housing
(415) 258-1800
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