CHESTERFIELD, Mo. – Change is a big part of Jamaica Johnson’s life these days. It’s been nearly three years since she was released from prison after a felony assault charge was dismissed. She hoped moving to the Avalon Apartment homes in Chesterfield would solidify her new lease on life.
“I’m not a saint. I’m not perfect,” Johnson said. “But at the same time, I know the process of an application. This was a little different. I was willing to take that challenge to see what was going on.”
On July 23, Johnson paid $175 for the application and background check. Nine business days later, she says management at the Avalon Apartment Homes told her the third-party company it uses to screen applicants wanted her to get fingerprinted. She obliged and paid $40 to do so, despite there being no mention of fingerprinting as part of the screening process in the more than 9,300-word terms and conditions of rental criteria page on Avalon’s website.
“Ok, I’m going to do what they ask me to do. Because maybe it’s something I don’t know. They keep saying this third party needs it.” Said Johnson.
On Aug. 16, now 16 business days since she first applied, Johnson got an email she shared with us, saying her application was “approved with conditions.” Three minutes later, she got an email saying her application was denied.
“I just want the truth! I just want the truth. What’s going on?” Johnson said.
FOX 2 went to the management office to find out. We explained to the apartment complex staff that he’d contacted the company several times and not received a response. We were eventually given Dave Seiler’s phone number. Seiler is the Executive Vice President of Trinity Property Consultants, a California company that manages Avalon. He confirmed Johnson’s application had been denied.
The basis of that denial? “Public records,” Seiler said.
Housing providers using public records to screen applicants is nothing new, but fair housing advocates say the increased role technology plays in the selection process raises questions about discrimination.
“They may use rental services that have their own algorithms,” Kalila Jackson, senior staff attorney for the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council, said.
Jackson said programs created to level the playing field for applicants often don’t.
“Unfortunately, because humans create the programs and create the algorithms that are making these assessments and the way the world has operated, there is a growing concern about the possibility for discrimination even in those algorithms,” Jackson said.
The Avalon Apartment Homes uses the company Entrata and its “Resident Verify” software to screen applicants. An Entrata representative told FOX 2 each property decides which applicants are accepted and denied based off screening parameters it chooses within Entrata’s software. The representative says Entrata does not fingerprint every applicant it screens. Each property decides which applicants it fingerprints based off a criterion the property creates.
We questioned Dave Seiler about the process. Was his company aware that some applicants were asked to get fingerprinted where other residents were not asked to be fingerprinted?
“I am not aware of that,” Seiler said. “That is outside my purview because that would be a resolution that would be happening at the credit check company.”
Fair housing advocate Kalila Jackson calls this finger-pointing over fingerprinting concerning.
“When it’s applied selectively, then you start to have concerns about who is this for and who is being subjected to this,” Jackson said.
In this case, it’s Jamaica Johnson. Out more than $200 and still looking for a new place to live.
“They gave me a run for my money,” she said. “Literally, a run for my money!”
Jamaica will soon have some of that money back in her wallet. A manager for the apartment complex tells Colombo it’s refunding the money she paid for the application. We should note federal housing law prohibits discrimination because of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, and disability. Entities or individuals who violate fair housing laws can face severe civil penalties.
If you believe you’re a victim of housing discrimination, we’d like to hear from you.