Lawsuit alleges racial discrimination in tenant screening tool
Two Black women from Massachusetts are at the center of what could become a landmark federal case about whether software that screens potential tenants is illegally biased against Black and Hispanic applicants.
Rachael Rollins, the US attorney for Massachusetts, weighed in on the case, Louis vs. SafeRent Solutions, in a court brief this week, arguing that the technology used by tenant screening companies must comply with anti-discrimination rules. “Algorithms are written by people. As such, they are susceptible to all of the biases, implicit or explicit, of the people that create them,” Rollins said in a statement. Rollins said her filing “recognizes that our 20th century civil rights laws apply to 21st century innovations.”
SafeRent Solutions is a company used by landlords to screen potential tenants. SafeRent gives rental applicants a risk score based on their credit history, other credit-related information including non-tenancy debts, and eviction history.
Mary Louis, 54, of Malden, and Monica Douglas, 65, of Canton, both Black women with subsidized housing vouchers, are the plaintiffs, along with the Community Action Agency of Somerville, which helps people with vouchers find housing. They sued SafeRent and Metropolitan Management Group, a Boston-based apartment management company, in August in US District Court in Massachusetts. Both women were denied apartments by Metropolitan because of SafeRent scores. The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from Greater Boston Legal Services, Washington, DC-based firm Cohen, Milstein, Sellers & Toll, and the Boston-based National Consumer Law Center.
The lawsuit alleges that SafeRent “assigns disproportionately lower SafeRent Scores to Black and Hispanic rental applicants compared to White rental applicants,” partly because it measures credit history, which includes non-tenant-related debt.
“SafeRent Scores cause Black and Hispanic rental applicants to be disproportionately likely to be denied housing,” attorneys for Louis, Douglas, and the housing agency wrote in their court brief. They argue that for tenants who hold housing vouchers, there is no legitimate reason to evaluate their credit scores since payment of much of their rent is guaranteed by the voucher.
The lawsuit argues that credit histories are an incomplete record that do not accurately predict how likely a tenant will be to pay rent on time. Using credit histories hurts Black and Hispanic consumers, who have median credit scores of 612 and 661, respectively, compared to 725 for White consumers.
SafeRent and Metropolitan Management Group are seeking to have the case dismissed. Attorneys for SafeRent wrote in their brief that credit checks of prospective tenants are routine and well-accepted, and there is no statistical evidence of a disparate impact on Black, Hispanic, or voucher-holding applicants. SafeRent does not know an applicant’s race.
SafeRent says credit checks are relevant, because even tenants with housing vouchers must pay a portion of their rent, and poor credit suggests a tenant may have trouble paying rent on time.
SafeRent says it should not be held liable for decisions made by landlords, who decide what scores they will accept and how they will use scores to make decisions on tenants.
Lawyers for Metropolitan Management Group say a property management group has a responsibility to assess the risks of accepting each tenant “including attempting to determine whether a given tenant is likely to make timely payments, likely to abide by all other terms of the lease, and unlikely to engage in criminal behavior that could compromise the safety of other tenants.”
“Credit history is both a common and legally accepted tool used by housing providers to assist in their decision process, because it provides a window into the potential risk of default associated with an applicant,” Metropolitan Management Group’s attorneys wrote.
The Metropolitan brief says Louis’s claim “is a generalized but understandable grievance with the historical inequities in American society and the consequential results of these inequities,” but does not prove discrimination by Metropolitan. “Put another way, Louis seeks to hold Metropolitan accountable for disparities it didn’t create: longstanding inequities in access to wealth and wealth-building mechanisms that have contributed to racial and income disparities in credit scores and credit histories.”
The US Department of Justice, through the US Attorney’s office, opposes efforts to dismiss the case. The Department of Justice says the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination, does apply to tenant screening companies like SafeRent. Rollins’ office does not weigh in on whether discrimination occurred in this case.
NEW STORIES FROM COMMONWEALTH MAGAZINE
Good news, bad news: The retail price of marijuana is plummeting, which is good news for consumers but bad news for a four-year-old industry that is grappling with market saturation. Retailers and growers are going out of business and officials are urging regulators to take action, including limiting approval of new growing licenses.
– Data from the Cannabis Control Commission indicate the average price of an ounce of marijuana was $400 in 2018, but has fallen to less than $200 recently.
– The data suggest the industry is facing a supply-demand imbalance.
The number of cannabis plants monitored by the commission has grown from 15,000 in 2018 to more than 250,000 today, while customers are buying less marijuana and out-of-state customers are drying up as surrounding states legalize the drug.
– How bad is it? Pleasantrees, which operates retail dispensaries in Amherst and Easthampton, is offering to give its stores away in what the company calls “a no-cost acquisition of its assets.” Read more.
Another cabinet appointment: Gov. Maura Healey appointed Lauren Jones, an official with the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, to the cabinet post of secretary of labor and workforce development. Read more.
E-bike strategy: Jonathan Timm of Guidehouse says Boston is behind the curve on e-bikes but he outlines how the city can change that with targeted investments. Read more.
STORIES FROM ELSEWHERE AROUND THE WEB
Gov. Maura Healey won’t claim that the governor’s office has a blanket exception from the public records law, as previous governors have done. (Eagle-Tribune)
A federal lawsuit challenges a Massachusetts law that lets municipal governments profit from selling a home that was foreclosed on due to tax debt. (Gloucester Daily Times)
A Berkshire Eagle editorial calls for federal officials to provide more guidance to local officials grappling with public outcry over new cell phone towers that many local residents say are dangerous.
Responding to neighborhood concerns, two police officers start patrolling on foot on Bowdoin Street and Geneva Avenue in Boston. (Dorchester Reporter)
Eyebrows are being raised over the $87,000 in overtime and other added pay raked in last year by the nursing director at the troubled Chelsea Soldiers’ Home. (Boston Globe)
Some Democrats are not happy with Democratic House Speaker Ron Mariano’s decision not to seat two new Democratic House members who won close races and instead let a three-member House committee evaluate the claims of their Republican opponents who are contesting the vote tallies. (Boston Globe)
The Cape Cod Mall in Hyannis gained initial approval to add housing and a hotel at the shopping plaza. (Cape Cod Times)
Disgraced FTX founder Samuel Bankman-Fried publishes his account of how the crypto company collapsed. (Substack)
A new report examines the enormous challenges of providing bus service to the Boston Public Schools and calls for a number of changes, including changing school start times. (WBUR)
City councilors say they’ll renew the push in the new year for an elected school committee in Boston. (Boston Herald)
A jury acquitted a Green Line driver of any wrongdoing in a 2021 crash. The driver said he may have fallen asleep, allowing the vehicle to crash into a train ahead going three times the speed limit. (WBUR)
A WBUR investigation finds the Department of Public Utilities, the safety watchdog for the MBTA, regularly allowed the transit authority to miss safety investigation deadlines.
Passenger train service between North Adams and Boston could cost close to $2.2 billion, according to a briefing by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. (Berkshire Eagle)
Unusually warm temperatures mean New England animals are waking up from hibernation early, which could be dangerous to them. (USA Today Network)
Newly appointed state climate chief Melissa Hoffer joins a virtual rally with climate activists to discuss the importance of climate resiliency. (MassLive)
The regional Immigration and Customs Enforcement office says Boston police ignored more than 100 immigration detainer requests from ICE last year – far more than the 12 cases the Boston Police Department cited in a report earlier this week. (Boston Herald)
The attorney general’s office files a legal brief supporting President Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan. (MassLive)
A 21-year-old is arrested on drug trafficking charges in Pittsfield in what Berkshire County District Attorney Timothy Shugrue is calling one of the biggest methamphetamine busts ever. (Berkshire Eagle)
Globe columnists Joan Vennochi and Yvonne Abraham both decry the outsized press coverage – which the Globe is leading in the case of Ana Walshe of Cohasset – often given to cases of missing white women, especially wealthy ones.
Ed Kubosiak, MassLive’s vice president of content and a longtime fixture at the publication, is fired from the company after an arrest for domestic assault. The charge against him was dropped. (MassLive)