Requiring SSN of rental applicants may be asking for trouble

Rent it Right

Q: I have a policy of not renting to anyone who cant or wont give me a Social Security number. I need it to make sure I run a credit check on the right person. Is there anything illegal about requiring an SSN? –Tim A.

A: I’m not aware of any law that explicitly says it’s illegal to require an SSN of every applicant. Still, you could be headed for some legal difficulties if you refuse to consider people without this form of identification. Here’s why:

Many people believe that having an SSN is proof of one’s right to be in this country, and that not having an SSN indicates illegal residency, but this is not the case. Some foreigners who are here legally will not have an SSN. If these folks pay taxes, as many of them do, they will instead have an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). This number should be sufficient, for credit check purposes, to prevent any mix-ups with other individuals.

If you encounter prospects with ITINs but refuse to consider their applications, you can probably guess where the legal argument is headed: These folks are foreign nationals who are being treated negatively by a landlord.

The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits landlords from discriminating against applicants and tenants based on their national origin. While "national origin" discrimination usually takes the form of discrimination against a particular place or country of origin, it’s possible that a policy that discriminated against all foreign nationals would also be illegal.

Q: I have a multi-tenant building near a large, national employer. Id like to rent to some of these employees, but so far, I get only a few each year. How can I break into this market? Mary K.

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A: If the employer is big enough, with a presence in many states, chances are it has a human resources department that assists its employees with finding housing (it may even keep a few short-term rentals that are made available to new employees for use while they house hunt). Get in touch with the person who handles housing issues and ask if they are interested in working with you as a "preferred provider" of housing.

Here’s how it works: You offer housing at a discount to the employees (perhaps by offering a month or so of free rent), and the company lists your vacancies on its internal website or other materials. Both sides win: You get insider listing, and the employer assists its new hires.

The benefits of a program like this go beyond the efficiency of getting your vacancies in front of many apartment seekers. If the company is a careful employer, it will have screened its employees, using many of the same principles that you would use when screening tenants — and you know that the applicant has a job!

For example, the company will have satisfied itself that the employee is stable, law-abiding, punctual and honest — just the qualities you’re looking for, too.

As an added incentive to get the employer to work with you, consider offering to allow company tenants who need to leave early because of a job transfer within the company to get out of their leases early.

An employer will see this as a real boon — often, employees who are transferred midlease face the difficult task of accepting the transfer or dealing with the possibility that they will have to pay many months’ worth of rent while the former landlord looks to fill the vacancy. (Smart companies offer to cover these lease-breaking costs.)

By specifying that you will consider the lease terminated within a short time after the tenant/employee leaves for an intracompany transfer, you’ve solved a very real problem.

Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of "Every Landlord’s Legal Guide" and "Every Tenant’s Legal Guide." She can be reached at janet@inman.com.

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