Phil Querin Q&A: Screening Applicants - Is It Okay to Change Criteria? Any Changes in Oregon Law?

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Phil Querin

Question: We have various screening criteria, but they change from time to time -- usually after we run up against a problem we haven't seen before. Is it OK to change our criteria, and if so, how do we do it?

Answer: The tenant application process is one of the least understood by landlords and managers. This lack of familiarity can result in significant liability to park owners. Here is a short primer:

Screening Criteria. The manufactured housing section of Oregon's landlord-tenant law provides that any conditions the landlord applies in approving a purchaser who will live in the community should be disclosed in the existing resident's rental or lease agreement.(1) Although those conditions must be in conformance with state and federal laws, there are no limitations or restrictions as to what criteria may be placed in the rental or lease agreement.

If you are changing your screening criteria for existing residents, you may be in violation of Oregon law, since those criteria are supposed to already be in the rental agreement, which, as you know, cannot be unilaterally amended by a landlord - subject only to specific exceptions.

MHCO's rental (Form 5A) and lease agreement (Form 5B) forms contain a number of criteria that landlords may impose, such as: (a) prior rental references; (b) unsatisfactory credit history or no credit history; (c) character references; (d) criminal history; (e) insufficient income to reasonably meet the monthly space rent and other expense obligations imposed by the rental or lease agreement; (f) the presence, number and size of pets; (g) age verification criteria if the park is a 55+ facility; (h) evidence of falsified or misleading material information; (i) refusal to sign a written lease or rental agreement; (j) additional occupants; and (k) adverse public record information.

Note that in 2013, the Oregon Legislature changed the law as it relates to "criminal history." Now, landlords and managers may not summarily reject a prospective tenant for "any" criminal history. Today, it is limited to:

- Pending criminal charges, or
- Prior criminal convictions, if they resulted from crimes that are:
o Drug-related;
o Against persons;
o Sexual in nature;
o Fraudulent in nature; or
o That could adversely affect the property, health, safety, or peaceful enjoyment of the landlord, landlord's agents, or tenants.

To remind landlords and managers, MHCO will be adding these clarifications to its rental and lease agreement forms. In the meantime, landlords and managers should adhere to the new limitations described above.

Although there may be other criteria that landlords and managers may wish to use when deciding whether to accept an applicant, the above list in the MHCO form is very comprehensive, and should be sufficient in imposing adequate guidelines when a resident wishes to sell their home on site. If you want to make a change by adding additional screening criteria, you may only do so for new residents coming into the community - not retroactively for existing residents.

Landlords and managers should become familiar with the criteria imposed in their rental agreements and rental application forms. Additionally, they should not rely upon the application information submitted to them without a thorough background check providing necessary verification. Although Oregon law imposes a 7-day or 10-day period (2) within which landlords have to respond to a submitted application, it does not prohibit landlords from imposing a longer period so long as the applicant agrees. Additionally, Oregon law expressly states that the 7-day or 10-day period does not commence if the application is incomplete or inaccurate. Accordingly, landlords and managers would be wise to immediately return any submitted application if it is incomplete - and upon discovering that the prospective tenant/purchaser provided inaccurate information, the application should also be returned. Accepting an incomplete application or continuing with the process after discovering that the applicant has provided incorrect information can result in an argument by the existing tenant or the new applicant that the landlord is intentionally delaying the process.

Conclusion. Landlords would have fewer tenant problems if they took more time during the screening process. This means resisting the temptation to fill a space quicker than the approval process actually takes. Unfortunately, the desire to have the rental flow commence quickly can result in the process becoming rushed. Landlords and managers should never allow the applicant to rush them. Nor should they ever permit an applicant to move into a home before the process has been completed and a new rental agreement signed. Lastly, fairness and uniformity in screening will help to avoid the ever-present liability that can occur under the federal and state Fair Housing laws when one applicant claims they were treated differently than another.

1 Although the law provides that the screening criteria must be in the rental or lease agreement, they may also be found in the rules and regulations. While there is no problem with this, other than redundancy, landlords should be careful to make sure that the criteria are the same. Similarly, the criteria may also be put in the Statement of Policy, but similar caution should be exercised to make them consistent. My approach is however, to avoid the risk of inconsistency by not repeating the same requirements in multiple documents. If one document gets changed and the others don't there will be an inconsistency.

2 The longer period exists if the tenant failed to give the landlord at least 10-days advance notice of intent to sell his/her home.

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