Professor Paul Franzese on Tenant Rights with Senator Cory Booker

Cortes is one of an untold number of people who have been “blacklisted” by tenant-screening agencies because her current landlord began eviction proceedings against her for nonpayment of rent. Cortes has been putting her rent in escrow rather than paying her landlord, as lawyers say she is legally allowed to do, because of the unsanitary conditions of her housing.

Yanira Cortes says she withheld her rent to protest unsanitary conditions in her apartment and has been blacklisted by landlords for doing so.

“Now when I try to apply to other places, they tell me, ‘You went to court for an eviction, you’re basically a bad tenant,’” said Cortes, 29. “It’s not fair to me or my children to have to live in these conditions.”

Landlords deny that they engage in blacklisting. But the practice has been under scrutiny recently in New Jersey. On Monday, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) jumped into the fray, announcing federal legislation that would reform the Fair Credit Reporting Act to make tenant-rating agencies more accountable and give tenants additional protections.

Booker’s legislation seeks to help tenants in several ways. It would:

> Prohibit consumer-reporting agencies from providing information on evictions or other housing court issues unless the landlord won the case;

> Prevent the agencies from reporting on issues that are more than three years old;

> Require the agencies to try to verify the accuracy of the information they are reporting;

> Make a consumer’s report available to them for free once a year through a centralized clearinghouse and require a landlord who declines to rent to a person to give him a free copy of his report;

> Have the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report to Congress on tenant-rating agencies and their compliance with the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

“The chilling effect is real,” said Paula Franzese, a professor at the Seton Hall University School of Law who teaches property law and was the co-author earlier this year of an article on issues surrounding tenant eviction proceedings and blacklisting. “Tenants are afraid to speak up. They fear appearing on that blacklist … It creates false negatives. A tenant who is a very good tenant, a worthy tenant, because the list gives no context, that tenant is denied future housing opportunities.”

Franzese said she brought the issue to Booker’s attention earlier this year after learning about the blacklisting process and its ramifications. According to her article, companies that call themselves “credit-reporting agencies” screen a prospective tenant in exchange for a fee the tenant must pay and then report all instances in which that tenant was named as plaintiff or defendant in a landlord-tenant court action.

“Those reports, which can sink a tenant’s prospects of finding rental housing, reveal nothing about context and do not indicate, for example, whether or not the listed tenant successfully defended the litigation or raised breach of warranty,” Franzese wrote, referring to a tenant refusing to pay rent due to conditions making an apartment uninhabitable.

Read more of what Professor Franzese is doing to help in "Legislating Against Blacklisting To Help Tenants Find Better Housing" from NJ Spotlight.