Can you ask tenants if they’re U.S. citizens?
On June 12, residents living in an apartment building at the corner of 42nd Avenue and Junction Boulevard in Queens, NY came home to the following notice posted on their door:
“All tenants whose name is on the lease should come to the office with the following documents.
- Photo ID
- Social security card
- Proof of your status in US. (Green card or Passport)
- Proof of your employment.”
The letter was signed “New Management.” Just for good measure, the notice ended with: “P.S If you fail to comply, your lease will not be renewed, we may have to terminate your lease and may have to evict you from the apartment.”
In other words: prove you’re a citizen, or pack your bags and leave.
Understandably, residents were shocked. The 23-unit apartment building is located in a predominantly Latino neighborhood, and many were worried that their housing was in jeopardy.
The New York Daily News got wind of the story and decided to investigate.
As it turns out, the landlord never authorized the letter. Once the newspaper started asking questions, the landlord, Jaideep Reddy, apologized and promised to retract what had been said.
Reddy explained that the letter was posted by his electrician, Eddie Peralta. A fire broke out in the building some time ago, and for more than a year, Peralta had been trying to gain access to units to make necessary electrical repairs.
“Each apartment has 12 people in there! Is that safe? I don’t think it’s safe,” Reddy told the newspaper. “Half the tenants won’t let the electrician into their apartment,” which is why he says Peralta drafted the letter in the first place. “That was stupid on his part.”
Peralta isn’t apologizing. He moved to the U.S. from Columbia almost 35 years ago. He did so legally, and believes others should do the same. “People need to become legal!” he yelled, before launching into an anti-immigrant tirade. (He hasn’t officially taken responsibility for the letter, however; he blames it on his secretary.)
At least one resident has contacted State Senator Jose Peralta, who then filed a complaint with the attorney general’s office. Peralta noted that the letter was in violation of the city’s Human Rights Law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of immigration status. The attorney general’s office followed up by sending a cease-and-desist notice to Reddy, noting that the letter violates multiple city and state laws.Read it now on the #BuildiumBlog: Can you ask tenants if they're U.S. citizens? Click To Tweet
Still, residents are concerned.
“Why are they asking for papers?” asked Blanca Lima, a 44-year-old resident who says she has all of her papers, but refuses to share them with management in what she calls an act of solidarity with her undocumented neighbors. “It’s not good because a lot of neighbors don’t have anything. I’m with them,” says Lima, a native of Guatemala who has lived in the building for 26 years.
As promised, the threatening letter was taken down. Reddy replaced it with a note that reads:
“It has recently come to the attention of Building Management that certain correspondence has been posted in the public areas purporting to be from ‘New Management.’ These postings asked that all tenants provide ‘New Management’ with proof of immigration status and contained a threat of eviction. There is no ‘New Management.’ Please know that this piece of correspondence is not from your landlord. Neither your landlord nor building staff or management will ever ask you for any proof of immigration status. The residents of 95-36 42nd Avenue are a family: A family of people from all races, religions and ethnicities.”
The stir was enough to catch the attention of NY Governor Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo has since ordered a multi-agency investigation into whether landlords across the state are discriminating against immigrants.
“These allegations of fear and intimidation are unacceptable, illegal, and run counter to everything New York represents,” said Cuomo, without mentioning this specific case by name.
Can You Ask Tenants if They’re U.S. Citizens?
What Landlords Need to Know
This story is a reminder that all landlords and property managers MUST follow local, state, and federal housing laws.
The federal Fair Housing Act explicitly prohibits screening prospective tenants on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, or familial status.
That said, it is not illegal to ask housing applicants to provide documentation of their citizenship or immigration status as long as you have a legitimate basis for doing so. A landlord has legitimate basis for seeking this information because it may affect how long the individual is able to be present in the country; and, as a result, whether the person will be able to fulfill the lease’s terms. If a person is only allowed to be in the country for another six months, but they want to sign a year-long lease, this may be a valid reason for denying the applicant. However, denying an applicant solely on the basis of citizenship—if their citizenship does not prevent them from fulfilling the terms of the lease—would be illegal.
HUD gives two examples as illustration:
Example 1: A person from the Middle East who is in the United States applies for an apartment. Because the person is from the Middle East, the landlord requires the person to provide additional information and forms of identification, and refuses to rent the apartment to him. Later, a person from Europe who is in the United States applies for an apartment at the same complex. Because the person is from Europe, the landlord does not have him complete additional paperwork, does not verify the information on the application, and rents the apartment. This is disparate treatment on the basis of national origin.
Example 2: A person who is applying for an apartment mentions in the interview that he left his native country to come study in the U.S. The landlord, concerned that the student’s visa may expire during tenancy, asks the student for documentation to determine how long he is legally allowed to be here. If the landlord requests this information, regardless of the applicant’s race or specific national origin, the landlord has not violated the Fair Housing Act.
So, can you ask tenants if they’re U.S. citizens? Any landlord who plans to use citizenship as part of their tenant screening protocol should develop a policy and apply it uniformly in a non-discriminatory fashion. You may consider asking every applicant if they are a U.S. citizen. If the answer is no, you may request that the applicant provide proof that they are in the U.S. legally, such as a passport, visa, or green card.Can you ask tenants if they're U.S. citizens? Find out what you need to know on the #BuildiumBlog. Click To Tweet
As always, this information is intended to serve as a guide for landlords and property managers. We are not lawyers and cannot provide specific legal advice. We always suggest contacting your attorney for more information to prevent a situation like Mr. Reddy found himself in above.
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