Polish up your LinkedIn profile, spruce up your resume and overnight that college transcript. It’s time to apply for…an apartment in New York City?
Landlords and brokers have been known to ask for some pretty strange materials from applicants in the broiling cauldron of local real estate. But that doesn’t mean the requests are normal — or legal.
A tweet from poet Saeed Jones recently spurred a wave of responses from renters recalling the strangest, and most invasive requirements they’ve encountered during their housing hunts.
“A friend of mine is applying for an apartment in Brooklyn and a landlord made her and her boyfriend submit… resumes??? And LinkedIn???? And they might have to write essays to explain their credit scores????” Jones wrote on June 24.
Respondents tweeted back to share their own questionable encounters, like the management company that asked for a photo of a small child and the landlord who requested an applicant’s college transcript. One man said he lost out on an apartment because the owner preferred a rival’s job at Google.
City Limits talked to several renters about their weirdest landlord demands and checked in with three housing attorneys to determine which requests were legal, which were bizarre (hint: all of them) and which were both.
LinkedIn and social media
It definitely seems odd — this is an apartment search, not a job interview — but asking for someone’s LinkedIn profile is probably legal because it relates to employment, says Sam Himmelstein, a tenant lawyer and partner at the law firm Himmelstein McConnell.
“I’ve never seen that before, but I think you can ask for anything related to employment, financial standing and credit worthiness,” Himmelstein says. “It’s not illegal, but it’s kind of wacky.”
Still, the landlord could be breaking the law if any of the requests are proxies for other forms of bias. New York City Human Rights Law prohibits discrimination against 14 protected classes, including lawful occupation and lawful source of income.
“Where a landlord gets in trouble is if the question seems designed to possibly discriminate against someone based on legally protected categories, like race, age, sex, marital status, national origin, sexual preference,” he says.
LinkedIn is just the tip of the iceberg, Himmelstein says. Landlords review various social media platforms when screening tenants, even if that leads to misguided or possibly illegal assumptions.
“It feels very Big Brotheresque. It’s not enough to find a tenant willing to rent your apartment and pay the rent, but you need to investigate every part of that person’s past to find out what kind of tenant you think they’d be in the future?” adds Ellen Davidson, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s Civil Unit.
And Steve Wagner, a partner at Wagner, Berkow & Brandt, says those searches, while common, reveal little about someone’s ability to pay rent.
“I suspect landlords won’t be able to predict what type of tenant someone will be by doing these invasive searches,” Wagner says.
A photo of a child (seriously)
Sometimes the application requirements are just plain creepy — and possibly racist. Take this example: “For a Williamsburg apartment we had to submit a photo…of our child…..he was five…” tweeted Brooklyn resident Toyin Onabanjo-Edge in a response to Jones.
Onabanjo-Edge showed City Limits the emails in which agents from Corcoran Group asked for the photo of their son.
“Can you send me another most recent banking statement and also any proof of liquid assets or savings account statement,” the agent wrote. “Please also send over a passport or id/photo of your toddler. What is his/her name?”
Onabanjo-Edge said the request seemed suspicious, but, as a North Carolina native, she didn’t know if it was out of the ordinary in New York City.
“My first thought as a Black person was they’re probably making sure we’re both white, or one of us was white or that we are of a certain financial status so that we are the ‘OK” kind [of tenant],’” she said. “Then I thought, maybe they were wondering if we were trying to pass off a kid as a roommate, but either way it doesn’t matter because it was a two-bedroom.”
She said she and her family have since moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant and were never again asked to submit a photo.
“It was just really weird,” she said. “We were like maybe this is how they do it in New York … or maybe this is how they do it in Williamsburg.”
Corcoran Group declined to comment for this article.
Whatever the case, the photo request could be illegal under New York City fair housing laws, which specifically forbid discrimination based on race, color, age and other characteristics that could be evident in a photograph.
The city’s website advises tenants and landlords that “requiring a picture with the application” is possible evidence of housing discrimination.
“An applicant can be asked to provide government-issued identification but this requirement must be applied consistently to all applicants and should not be restricted to a particular form of identification (e.g., a driver license),” the city’s guidance reads.
In situations like that, New York City’s Human Right Commission advises apartment applicants to contact them to investigate the request. To reach the commission, call 311 or dial (212) 416-0197.
Davidson, the Legal Aid attorney, was incredulous when she learned about the photo demand.
“A photo of a child. Why would that be?” she said. “That’s definitely odd.”
After Himmelstein learned of the photo request, he talked to his colleagues and received a common response: “A, we thought the request was very odd,” he said. “And some of us felt it could be the basis of a discrimination claim depending on the race or ethnicity of the kid … if the landlord turned them down.”
A college transcript
Williamsburg resident Michael G. responded to Jones’ tweet with his own unusual application requirement: A landlord told him to submit a letter of recommendation from his small liberal arts college proving he was a good dorm resident.
Michael told City Limits he graduated from college last year and set out to find his very first apartment in September 2020. A building owner demanded references from past landlords, but Michael said he had only lived at his parents’ house and in the college dorms.
“He said your school is your landlord, so you need a letter from them, I thought that was a pretty strange request,” Michael said. The school said they had never been asked for a dorm reference and turned him down. So the landlord asked for his diploma and college transcript, he said.
“It was more of an eye roll than a barrier to getting housing because I guess they thought the transcript and diploma carried some weight,” Michael said. “The landlord sees my GPA, my AP test scores from high school are on it, lots of information that I don’t think they have any business seeing.”
He wondered whether the landlord would have rented to someone else who didn’t graduate from college. And he asked not to use his last name in this story because he’s looking for another apartment and worries about his next landlord Googling him. They probably will, according to the housing lawyers.
Wagner laughed when he heard about the landlord’s college transcript request.
“That’s crazy, but there’s no law against it. It just seems ridiculous,” he said.
An essay explaining a credit score
The idea of a landlord requesting an essay to explain a credit score elicited various responses on Twitter: “Is the landlord’s secret dream to be an NYC high school admissions officer?” one user responded.
The three attorneys interviewed for this story all called that specific request unusual, but again, not illegal. Landlords commonly conduct credit checks as part of the screening process and the brokerage site StreetEasy recommends that would-be tenants explain their low credit score upfront.
But an essay?
“That’s bizarre,” Himmelstein said. “There are standards and landlords are entitled to ask about your finances and anything reasonably related to that is fair game.” In Wagner’s view, the same goes for a detailed bank statement with individual purchases listed.
“That’s probably OK because it’s financials,” he said.
Then there are the apartment hunters who get a raw deal for seemingly arbitrary reasons.
SoHo resident Jackson Isaacson said he got beat out by another applicant who worked for Google because the landlord liked that person’s job better. Himmelstein, the housing attorney, said that’s probably not illegal, but it is demoralizing.
It also illustrates the types of hoops New Yorkers have to go through to prove they qualify for an apartment — only to lose out at the very end.
“The most disappointing thing about all of the housing and renter experiences in NYC is just how normalized these things are to us as residents,” Isaacson said.