Software rental companies will pay fines for digital discrimination, says Healey

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Two property management software companies, including one in Boston, agreed to pay $100,000 in fines after an investigation by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey found their software unlawfully discriminated against potential tenants who use government rent subsidies.

Healey’s office said the case is part of an ongoing effort to determine whether programs that perform personal background checks contain algorithms that discriminate against people of color and low-income renters.

Buildium of Boston offers a suite of property management programs that includes tenant screening software from Virginia-based Tenant Turner. Healey’s office discovered that the Tenant Turner program included a feature that could be configured to automatically reject any tenant who planned to pay part of the rent with a government housing voucher.

“Here in Massachusetts, it is illegal to discriminate against someone based on receipt of a government benefit,” said Trini Gao, assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division.

The software could also reject tenants who had been convicted of certain crimes. This is allowed on a case-by-case basis, but according to state law, tenants are not allowed to automatically reject any applicant with a criminal record.

Healey’s investigation began with a referral to the Cambridge Human Rights Commission. This agency had received a complaint from a property management company which found that potential tenants were being rejected by online screening software, if they said they were receiving government housing assistance. The management company did not know why this was happening. But an investigation revealed that it was an optional feature of Buildium’s software that had somehow been enabled by accident. Investigators also discovered the optional feature to reject applicants with criminal records.

Franklin’s Lisa Noonan told Healey’s office that she met Buildium Software in the spring of 2019 when she had 15 days to find a new apartment. Noonan said online screening programs repeatedly rejected her because she participated in the federal Section 8 housing subsidy program.

“As soon as I filled everything out, a popup immediately appeared saying we’re not taking Section 8,” Noonan said. “It’s illegal.”

But she couldn’t do anything about it at the time. The repeated refusals caused him to miss the deadline to move. Noonan and her son have received an eviction notice, and she fears it will hamper their search for housing if they have to move again.

“They just hit you when you’re down,” Noonan said. “We are low income. We are not lower class.

In a statement, Buildium said their software’s optional settings were “variable to provide property managers with the ability to adjust them in accordance with applicable local laws.” Tenant Turner did not respond to a request for comment.

Under the terms of the settlement, Buildium and Tenant Turner will not admit any wrongdoing. But the two companies will modify their software to eliminate illegal practices. Buildium will pay a fine of $30,000, while Tenant Turner, which produced the screening software, will pay $70,000.


Hiawatha Bray can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.

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