Last Updated: May 19, 2022. Report error / Make suggestion

Dealing with Landlords

Templates of letters to a landlord explaining criminal background, evictions, and/or poor credit.

Tips for Writing a Letter of Explanation

What are my housing options when I first get out of custody?

There are three basic types of housing: emergency, transitional and permanent housing.

Emergency housing provides short-term housing for people in crisis (such as those who are homeless or escaping abuse). Some shelters offer not only a place to sleep, but also programs to help you find a job or a permanent place to sleep. Emergency housing is usually free or low cost, but you should not expect to stay more than a few nights since beds are limited and may not be available. For help finding emergency housing, call 211.

Transitional housing is a bridge between emergency housing and permanent housing and generally can be used from several months to several years. You will have to pay rent, but your transitional housing provider may also offer services to help you deal with addiction or trauma.

Permanent housing is a house or apartment that you rent or own and can live in indefinitely (provided you pay your rent/mortgage and follow the terms of your lease/mortgage).

Are there government programs that help pay for housing?

Yes. The federal government has programs to help low-income people get permanent housing, including Section 8 and public housing programs. Section 8 provides vouchers to certain low-income people to help them pay their rent, but is not available to those who have committed sex crimes or certain drug crimes. Public housing is housing that is owned by the government and rented to low-income people.

How do I apply for Section 8 or public housing?

The process to apply for Section 8 and public housing is determined by your Public Housing Authority (“PHA”). In most areas, you will need to provide information on the people who will be living with you and documents showing your income. Contact your local PHA to determine if you are eligible. Note that Section 8 and public housing programs have limited availability and wait times can be very long.

Where can I find other affordable housing?

The best way to get help finding affordable housing is to contact your local Public Housing Authority (PHA).

What do I need to apply for permanent housing?

The materials you need will depend on the landlord and application, but may include:

  • Personal information, including your state driver license or ID card or your Social Security number. Information about getting your identification documents can be found in the Identification chapter of this Guide.
  • Rental history, including whether you have ever been evicted in the past. They may wish to run a tenant background check.
  • Credit history. They may also run a credit check.
  • Criminal history (but remember that they cannot ban you simply for having gone to prison). They want to be sure that you will be a safe and responsible tenant.
  • Employment and income. They may ask for your paystubs or bank statements to prove that you can afford the rent. Generally, housing is considered affordable if it is 30% or less of your income. For example, if you make $1,200 a month, renting housing for $360 a month would be considered affordable.
  • Your housing voucher or other documentation related to public housing. You might have a housing voucher, or you might have a letter from the Housing Authority or another agency that says the agency will help pay if you can find suitable housing.

There may also be a fee associated with the credit and/or rental background check, and if you get the apartment, you will probably have to pay a deposit. Bear in mind that in most cases, every adult who will be living in the residence will be required to fill out the application. Remember that the landlord may not discriminate against you based on your race, color, religion, national origin, sex, family status (whether you have children who will be living with you) or disability.

How do I access my eviction record?

You can contact the county clerk’s office for a copy of your eviction record. While the record itself should be free, the clerk may charge you a small fee if they need to fax or mail the paperwork to you. Copies of eviction records are also available online for purchase from various clearinghouse companies with prices varying depending upon the source. In general, evictions will stay on your record for seven years.

What can a landlord ask about my criminal history?

Landlords cannot have a rule that they will not rent to anyone with a criminal history. Landlords can, however, consider your criminal history and deny your application dependent on the facts, such as the severity of the offense and how long ago it occurred.

In Seattle, landlords cannot ask about your criminal history and cannot reject your application for housing because of your criminal history unless they have reason to believe that you will be a danger to other tenants or the property.

Should I give more information about my criminal history than the landlord asks for?

You do not have to give information about your criminal history that a landlord doesn’t ask for, but if the landlord is running a background check you may want to disclose your criminal history since the landlord is likely to find out. As a general rule, the older and less serious the conviction, the less important it is to disclose. Consider submitting reference letters from employers and prior landlords to help your application.

Is it helpful to submit documentation to show I am rehabilitated since the conviction?

You can submit documents that you think will help explain your criminal record. Character references from employers, prior landlords, or other people who know you well can be very helpful if the landlord will accept them. Landlords are not required to accept such documents, but generally will do so.

Read our tips for writing a letter to potential landlords.

Do sealed or vacated cases affect my housing application(s)?

If you have a conviction that has beenvacated, you have the right to say that you were never convicted of that crime. The Washington State Patrol will not report convictions that have been vacated. But since vacated convictions can still show up in public records, they are often reported on background checks. If the landlord is likely to run a background check on you, you should consider telling the landlord about the conviction on your application and explaining that it was vacated.”

“Unfortunately, sealed and vacated records sometimes appear in background checks, even though they are not supposed to. If you are denied housing because of an incorrect background check, you may be able to challenge it.” See the section below entitled “If my background report has information that is inaccurate, what should I do?

Be aware your housing application can be rejected for reasons outside your criminal history. A landlord is generally free to set whatever eligibility conditions it wants, so long as those reasons are not discriminatory. A landlord may turn you down for poor credit history, having too little income, bad references from prior landlords, or a prior eviction lawsuit. A landlord may also choose not to allow pets or smoking inside the building.

Past drug addiction is considered a disability under fair housing laws, so a landlord cannot turn your rental application for this reason alone. Note, however, that you may be evicted for illegal drug activity in a property that you are renting.

Do I have a right to know if a landlord is doing a background check on me?

If the landlord is doing its own investigation, such as looking at court records or interviewing people that know you, then you do not have a right to know about it. But if a landlord uses a third-party, such as a Consumer Reporting Agency (CRA), to perform a background check on you, then you have the right to know about it under a law called the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

“Before a landlord looks up any information about you, it must inform you in writing:

  • What types of information it will access about you
  • What criteria may result in you being rejected
  • If the landlord is planning to use a CRA, the name of the CRA, and that you are entitled to a free copy f the CRA report.

If a potential landlord runs a background check on you and are using a CRA, you are entitled to a free copy of the report.

If my background report has information that is inaccurate, what should I do?

You should tell the landlord what information is wrong, and let the landlord know that you are contacting the CRA to correct the information. To contact the CRA, use the information provided by the landlord. You should explain what part of the report is wrong, highlighting or otherwise marking that part of the report on a copy. You should also give the CRA the correct information, with document backup if possible. Once you have requested that a CRA correct information from your background report, then, within 30 days, it must perform an investigation.

CRAs cannot report information about arrests or convictions that are more than 7 years old. CRAs also cannot report juvenile convictions if you are 21 years old at the time of the background check.

If the situation is not resolved after talking to the landlord and the CRA, you should contact CLEAR at 1-888-201-1014 to seek legal advice. Call Monday – Friday between 9:15 a.m. and 12:15 p.m.

If the background report was provided by the Washington State Patrol, you should provide similar information to that agency, using its Request for Modification of Record form.

You are entitled to know if a potential landlord denies your housing application: If a landlord denies your application, it is required to inform you in writing and provide the reason that it has rejected you.

I believe a landlord is discriminating against me, what do I do?

If you believe that a landlord has denied your application solely because you have a previous criminal conviction you may file a complaint with the Federal Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD) as a violation of the Fair Housing Act. Fair housing complaints can be filed with HUD by telephone (1-800-669-9777), mail, or online.

More Housing Guides

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Extensive resources for finding housing as a formerly incarcerated person. Includes many specific organizations providing housing in Washington, including transitional housing.

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