Don’t blacklist tenants for asserting rights

In 2015, Endia Cleveland – an Oakland native and mother – was hopeful that she and her family would soon have a new apartment to call home. She submitted more than 10 applications but was denied without explanation.

Scrambling to find housing, Cleveland and her 6-year-old daughter rented hotel rooms until that became unaffordable. Then she slept on friends’ couches. For six months, they shuffled around so much that Cleveland’s daughter began to ask, “Where are we going to sleep tonight?”

Then came the kicker: Cleveland was told that her rental applications were denied because of an eviction in 2009, which showed up on tenant screening reports. This was news to Cleveland, as she had not been evicted. Not in 2009. Not ever.

Although Cleveland was named in an eviction lawsuit in 2009, that lawsuit did not result in a judgment against her, and the landlord lost the property in foreclosure. Cleveland was found guilty without being given a chance to prove her innocence.

Yet because the landlord did not dismiss the case, the court records became public after 60 days, as required by law. Tenant screening companies captured Cleveland’s name and, as she would find out, she was shut out of the rental market.

Cleveland’s story is far too typical. Thousands of Californians are blacklisted from housing even though they have never been evicted, and they have no legal right to be removed from these lists for at least seven years.

Meanwhile, a tenant’s credit is harmed and he or she cannot compete for housing. In California, where landlords choose between many potential tenants, blacklisting can lead to homelessness.

I authored Assembly Bill 2819 to address this situation. The bill says court records in eviction lawsuits would become public only if a landlord wins in court. Tenant blacklists could only list the names of tenants who were actually evicted. No longer would innocent tenants be forced into homelessness. AB 2819 would allow tenants to assert their rights without the fear of getting blacklisted.

Slum conditions in rental housing continue to plague our state. Last winter, an elderly man in Fresno died after the heat in his apartment stopped working for a month. Too many tenants are afraid to fight for their rights to habitable housing because court delays mean they could end up blacklisted.

In Los Angeles County, more than 6,000 eviction cases a year take more than 60 days to process. In San Francisco, it’s over 500 cases.

Currently, every one of these tenants could be blacklisted even if they win their cases. Under AB 2819, only people who lose in court would be unmasked for the commercial blacklists.

Opponents claim AB 2819 would prevent landlords from obtaining vital information about potential tenants. But amendments to the bill ensure that the concerns of the rental housing industry have been addressed, and the statewide apartment association does not oppose the bill.

Moreover, every landlord would remain free to call previous landlords to run reference checks. Landlords also could verify whether a prospective tenant has a criminal history and screen a tenant’s credit record.

Ask yourself: Should a college kid face an eviction lawsuit for complaining to the landlord or local code authority about mold in an apartment? And should that kid be blacklisted from renting for the seven years? I hope Gov. Jerry Brown asks himself those same questions and concludes that AB 2819 is the correct answer.

Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, chairs the Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee.