Back in 2009, Robert Guzman lived in the Bronx with his wife and young son. He had a good job in advertising and paid his rent on time — until he made a discovery.
"There were rats coming up from the basement — I lived on the first floor," he says. "They were like, giant rats."
Guzman repeatedly asked the building management to address the problem, but that didn't work. So he decided to withhold his rent. He wasn't "just being a deadbeat renter," Guzman says. "I'm withholding the rent for a reason."
New Yorkers have a history of using this tactic to force unwilling landlords to make repairs. But landlords often respond by suing their tenants, and for some cases, those suits can haunt a tenant later — long after the lawsuit is resolved and regardless of the circumstance.
It's because of something widely known as the tenant blacklist.
'As Soon As You Show Up In Court, That's It'
Guzman learned about it after his landlord sued to evict him for three months of unpaid rent. Guzman and the landlord eventually settled, but later, Guzman was rejected multiple times by other landlords when he tried to move, despite his good credit score.
"The realtor is telling me, 'What happened? You went to court?' I said, 'Yeah, I went to court, but it was for a reason.' "
The landlords don't care, Guzman's attorney told him. " 'As [soon] as you show up in court, that's it — you're on the tenants blacklist.' I had no clue what that was," Guzman says.
The blacklist is actually a database of suits filed by landlords and compiled by tenant screening companies. According to one report, around 650 of these companies are in business all across the country.
James Fishman, a tenant and consumer attorney in New York City, says tenant screening reports aren't very detailed. They don't contain enough information to differentiate between renters asserting their rights and others who are truly problematic.
"There are many reasons that tenants get sued that have nothing to do with whether they're a good tenant or not," Fishman says. "In fact, a lot of the reasons have to do with whether they have a bad landlord or not."
'It Gives Owners One More Tool'
Two screening companies, CoreLogic SafeRent and TransUnion Rental Screening Solutions, declined requests for interviews. But in emails, they say that consumers can dispute reports they believe are inaccurate or incomplete.
These companies are regulated by the Fair Credit Reporting Act, and some argue their services help weed out deadbeat renters.
"It gives the owner one more tool," says Frank Ricci, director of government affairs at the Rent Stabilization Association, the largest landlord group in New York City. "There are professional tenants out there who, over the years, go from building to building, apartment to apartment, and skip out on the rent."
In New York, tenant screening companies get help in gathering information from the state courts. The courts assign index numbers to housing court cases, then sell those numbers to the rental screening companies.
David Bookstaver, spokesman for the Office of Court Administration, says there are no rules against the practice.
"It's public information. We basically collate the information," he says.
Those who watch tenants issues don't expect the use of this information to change. Tenants will have to continue to figure out a solution on their own if they end up blacklisted. In the case of Robert Guzman, he hired a lawyer who got his name off the list.