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Prospective Renters Find Screens Block The Doorway

More and more would-be tenants in Spokane find their way blocked by screen doors.

An eight-year-old business, Tenant Information Systems Inc., examines rental applications submitted to more than 80 percent of the landlords in the community.

It’s a test many applicants don’t pass.

TIS President Larry Lambeth estimates the rejection rate for prospective tenants screened by his company varies from a low of 30 percent during the summer months to almost 60 percent around the holidays.

The only hope of finding shelter for many spurned renters is to find a landlord who does not use his or a similar service, Lambeth said.

“You can’t hide anymore,” he said.

But prospective tenants may be better armed when applying for housing if they know their rights.

Lambeth’s agency, like all credit-reporting services, is subject to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which limits searches to seven years back.

It also entitles anyone to check their file and challenge any information they feel is incorrect. If TIS verifies its accuracy, individuals can insert their own version of events into the file.

Although checks reveal the occasional grudge by a previous landlord, Lambeth said few errors turn up.

“We try to be as accurate as we can be,” he said.

At Spokane Legal Services, Managing Attorney Richard Sola said that even credible agencies like TIS can produce reports that don’t depict a problem 100 percent accurately.

Records may show attempts to remove tenants for non-payment, for example, but not subsequent settlements favorable to the renter.

Though tenants are entitled to correct misrepresentations, they may be unaware of that right, or even of the existence of a report that contains information being used against them, he said.

Lambeth said it took two years for him to compile the database that launched TIS.

He said he started because of experiences he’d had with bad tenants in California. When he moved to Spokane in the mid-1980s, he found there was no service that tracked evictions in the area.

TIS employees scoured the courts for eviction records. Then, as the fledgling company signed on clients, their records were entered into TIS files.

TIS also searched the courts for landlord-tenant litigation.

Finally, TIS shares its files, and has access to the files of, members of the National Association of Screening Agencies.

The result, Lambeth said, is a system loaded with the names of millions of individuals from around the country who may have been model occupants or tenants from hell.

Landlords pay membership dues to TIS, then a fee for any of several different types of reports. Most pass on the cost of the reports to apartment applicants.

For example, a quick check of company and national records, a credit report and criminal records in Washington and Oregon costs $15. In most cases, the landlord gets a response in less than one-half hour.

There are additional charges to verify information, a measure that can foil elaborate schemes to conceal past misdeeds.

“It’s amazing the elaborate steps people take to lie to you,” Lambeth said.

TIS General Manager Bill deWeber said checkered tenant histories are by no means limited to the poor.

“We’ve got a lot of upper end problems, too,” he said. “We’ve got lawyers who have been evicted.”

Lambeth said rent is sometimes the last bill paid because many think eviction will take more time than termination of a credit card.

While that may be true, he said, the flip side is an eviction will do much more harm to an individual’s ability to find shelter the next time they go looking.

“A credit card doesn’t affect their living conditions,” he said.

Lambeth added that more landlords have adopted the position that, even if a unit is vacant for a few months, they lose less in rent than they do if a tenant must be evicted.