Is it housing discrimination to require an American credit history?
June 2, 2014 10:03 PM   Subscribe

At the age of 46 I had to get my younger brother, who also lives in the U.S. but for a much longer time, to cosign my lease because my wife and I have only a year of American credit history being recent immigrants. Now I know it is illegal to deny housing based on someone being an immigrant but that it is legal to deny housing based on a credit check. Is it foul play that they refuse to check our foreign credit history?

I'd really prefer not to put my brother in this situation again due to awkward in-law issues that require us to do it all secretly so he doesn't end up causing rifts due to his refusal to back other less responsible family members.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Now I know it is illegal to deny housing based on someone being an immigrant

The Fair Housing Act does not prohibit discrimination based on immigrant status. Certain local laws may do so. Citizenship is not a protected status.

Is it foul play that they refuse to check our foreign credit history?

I'm not aware of any requirement that landlords check foreign credit history. Your (American) credit history is agnostic of national origin, race, color, religion, sex, disability and familial status, so it would be fair game under the Fair Housing Act.

As a practical matter, regardless of the legality, you would have a hard time doing anything about it. Governmental enforcement of the Fair Housing Act is almost non-existent. If you pursue a claim against a potential landlord, you will make yourself immensely less desirable to rent to, which would probably exacerbate your problem. The law is not self-enforcing, so the real question is not whether or not something is legal, it's whether or not you're willing to be viewed as a potential litigious tenant in the future.
posted by saeculorum at 10:21 PM on June 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Could all depend on what state and city you live in. But where I live, no, it is not discriminatory to do a credit check for rentals. And in general foreign credit checks are pretty useless. What matters is if you have a job and/or large bank account here.
posted by sbutler at 10:21 PM on June 2, 2014

I am not a lawyer and I cannot provide legal advice.

The US Fair Housing Act does prohibit housing discrimination based on national origin or birthplace, regardless of immigration status or locality. This memo from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development helps interpret in plain language the text of the law itself. Similarly, the US Equal Credit Opportunity Act prohibits discrimination in the granting of credit based on national origin as well.

Landlords are allowed to use a consumer report from one or more of the major credit reporting bureaus to make a determination on whether to rent to a particular applicant. There are specific rules that landlords need to follow, however, and you may want to read that document to ensure that your landlord was following them.

Requiring a renter to have a co-signer based on a lack of credit history as documented by one of the major credit bureaus mentioned in the documentation above is not illegal so long as the credit checks and requirements to rent are consistently applied to all potential renters. There does not appear to be any explicit requirement that foreign credit bureaus be checked in any law that I can find. Similarly, a landlord is not required to pull credit reports from all of the credit bureaus, despite the fact that many (or even most) Americans have slightly different credit ratings with each of the various bureaus.

If your brother is also an immigrant from the same place of national origin, which is how it sounds from your above message, and the landlord accepted him as a co-signer just because he had a better credit history from one of the standard credit bureaus, it is my opinion that it would be a very difficult argument to make that you were being discriminated against due to your national origin, and the landlord's actions are fairly likely to be kosher.
posted by I EAT TAPAS at 10:54 PM on June 2, 2014 [6 favorites]

FYI, while I can't speak to the legality of your situation, I can tell you that it is routine to not check foreign credit histories in these situations. My London landlord wouldn't take my US credit history when I moved to the UK; when I moved to Ireland, my Irish landlord wouldn't take my UK credit history. When we bought in Ireland, if we had wanted to use our US credit history, we'd have had to find a specialist lender in order to do that.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:44 AM on June 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

The screening costs money. I'm sure if it was easy the screeners would be happy to do it and pass the cost on to you.
posted by vespabelle at 6:11 AM on June 3, 2014

One option is to do a google search for (your city) fair housing group, and give that group a call. They may be interested in looking into the matter. As explained by I EAT TAPAS, what you're landlord did could be totally fine, but we don't know all the facts.
posted by Xalf at 6:13 AM on June 3, 2014

I EAT TAPAS has it; it'd be an interesting point to bring up with an immigrant advocacy group, as this is a relatively common problem for immigrants, and not just with housing (car loans, credit cards, etc.). A savvy advocacy group might be able to work with local car dealerships to get them to run binational credit checks in some cases, for example, or to find landlords who were willing to do the double check, for an additional application cost.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:54 AM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

When you say check your foreign credit history, did you provide them with a copy of it or expect them to be able to look into your credit history from here in the US. I had a similar problem trying to get a mortgage, I had to get official copies of my credit history from Australia myself. I know that in my case the places you go to get credit histories would not give out that information to a foreign bank, or at least that is what the bank said. If a bank with all it's facilities could not get a copy of a foreign credit history I imagine a landlord would have an even harder time.
posted by wwax at 7:09 AM on June 3, 2014

No, it's not.

In many cases, if a co-signer is unavailable, one can get into an apartment by putting up more of a security deposit, or agreeing to pay more rent.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:17 AM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I can't speak to whether or not this particular instance was legal/illegal, as I am not a lawyer.

I am, however, a leasing agent at an apartment community, so I can speak a bit about my experience processing applications. It's very difficult to get an accurate credit and background check for people who have recently moved here, even if they have a US SSN (which is what we used to do our check, mainly) because it would of course only show any activity since that number was assigned. We also had some luck usig an outside company for international credit and background screenings, however they were expensive, took a long time and didn't seem to be very reliable (in fact, the reports had a disclaimer that basically said that they couldn't verify their own accuracy). We used a site called Info Cubic.

Policies vary from landlord to landlord regarding credit and background history, co-signors, the possibility of increased security deposit, etc. I think the thing is that since anyone applying for an apartment there need to go through the credit and background check, the landlord needs to make sure that EVERYONE gets a comparable and verifiable credit and background check and it can be tricky if they need to get that info from a foreign country.
posted by Shadow Boxer at 10:44 AM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just FYI, once your brother has done this once (it sounds like he's already done it once?), you should have enough credit history and rental payment history built up after a year that, at the very least, it's much less likely you next landlord will require a co-signer.
posted by ldthomps at 1:27 PM on June 3, 2014

"The Fair Housing Act does not prohibit discrimination based on immigrant status. Certain local laws may do so. Citizenship is not a protected status."

That depends on how you parse "national origin." It would seem pretty plain text that discriminating against someone as an immigrant is discriminating against them for national origin. Unless you're parsing "immigrant status" to mean student visa versus green card, etc.
posted by klangklangston at 5:05 PM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

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