Bill Would Prohibit Landlords From Asking About Immigration Status

Bill Would Prohibit Landlords From Asking About Immigration Status
Damian Bariexca/Flickr
In October 2018, Antonio and his husband, Darren, were searching for a rental apartment in Denver. They found one they liked in an apartment building near Union Station that was managed by Greystar.

They applied online, but never heard back. Antonio decided to stop by Greystar's office to find out whether they had been accepted.

"It seems like there's a problem with your Social Security number," Antonio recalls the rental agent telling him.

"I told her that I just became a legal resident two and a half years before that, and that I've had that problem before," says Antonio, who is now a U.S. citizen.

The rental agent then gave Antonio another form. "It was about my immigration status, where I have to provide my contacts with my home country, and if there's a problem they're allowed to report that to ICE," Antonio recalls. "As she was giving me the form, she started asking me questions, like, 'How long did you live in the country? Did you have to pay an extra deposit for where you live now?'"

The questions bothered Antonio, who asked that his full name not be used for this article. "Immediately, I felt so uncomfortable, like I was doing something wrong, like she didn't believe I was a legal resident."

But the form and its questions don't qualify as discrimination under state or federal law.

If a landlord in Colorado were to question a potential tenant about things like race, religion, sex or disability, they'd risk being hit with a civil rights complaint. But landlords here and across the country are legally able to deny a tenant's application based on their immigration status.

Antonio is now working to change that policy through the Colorado legislature.

"When I, as a lawmaker, first saw this form, I found myself very shocked. How could this be legal in the state of Colorado?," Senator Julie Gonzales asked during a January 28 Senate Local Government Committee hearing.

Based on what Antonio went through, Gonzales, a Democrat from Denver, is carrying a bill that would ban rental agencies or landlords from asking about a person's immigration or citizenship status, prohibiting the use of the supplemental form Antonio filled out. Landlords who violate this policy could be hit with a maximum fine of $2,000. The committee passed the bill to the Senate as a whole.

The supplemental form, created by the National Apartment Association in the early 2000s, states that its purpose is to, among other things, "verify that you are lawfully in the United States." Landlords can request that people they suspect of not having legal status fill out the form. The form asks about how long a person has been in the United States, if they have legal status, and whether they've ever been deported. The National Apartment Association did not answer questions for this story.

"A landlord has a legitimate and reasonable interest in whether someone is here lawfully," Drew Hamrick, general counsel for the Colorado Apartment Association, testified during the hearing, arguing that a landlord needs to know if someone is going to possibly be detained or deported in the middle of a lease, preventing them from paying rent.

Hamrick was joined in opposing the bill by Rachel Griffin, a Denver lawyer who frequently handles landlord-versus-tenant cases.

"There is a legitimate concern that by adding the $2,000 penalty, you’re going to deter landlords from wanting to put their homes out into the inventory," Griffin said.

Her concerns were echoed by Senator Larry Crowder, a Republican who represents counties in southern Colorado.

"I do believe that this amount of money here hurts the very people you’re trying to help," Crowder said. "The concept of what we’re doing, I don’t see a problem with. But I just tend to believe that this will hurt a lot of people that this intends to help."

Both Crowder and fellow Republican senator Don Coram sought to get Gonzales to remove the $2,000 penalty from the bill. But proponents of the bill argued it needed a penalty to be effective.

"When there is not a penalty attached to a certain type of prohibited conduct, it has less teeth," said Laura Wolf, an attorney with the Rathod Mohamedbhai firm who has been representing Antonio.

The other part of the form that concerned Gonzales and advocates of the bill is a section at the top which reads, "We don't anticipate sharing this Supplemental Application with anyone except government officials who might inquire about you."

Antonio was especially bothered by this section, as he felt that a landlord could retaliate against tenants by turning over their information to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The Colorado Civil Rights Division, which recently adjudicated a discrimination complaint filed by Antonio against Greystar, agreed that this section was troublesome in its decision regarding the alleged discrimination.

“It is not clear why the Respondents need to be enabled to ‘better cooperate with government officials in the performance of their duties, when required,’ or why an applicant would need to provide information to so enable the Respondents. This stated purpose of the Supplemental Rental Application for Non-U.S. Citizens appears to create a chilling effect on obtaining housing by persons who are not U.S. Citizens," the civil rights division wrote. Greystar declined to comment for this article.

The division also noted, however, that "citizenship status is not a protected class under the Fair Housing Act or the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, and therefore, this chilling effect does not constitute unlawful discrimination under applicable law.”
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.