The head of a Toronto company accused of creating a tenant "blacklist" during the COVID-19 pandemic says he was actually trying to help tenants.
QP Briefing reported on an April 2 email from Naborly asking its landlord clientele to report tenants who had or had not paid rent on April 1 to a central "database."
"This database helps other landlords know in the future if a tenant has been delinquent in the past, while also helping Naborly continue to deliver the most accurate and up-to-date tenant screening service in the market," the email reads.
Dylan Lenz, the CEO of tenant screening company Naborly, did not respond to QP Briefing's request for comment prior to publication, but later reached out to say that, due to jurisdictional laws, landlords in Canada won't be able to see what other landlords have written about tenants.
Lenz told QP Briefing on Tuesday that the email was "poorly worded," and that the company's goal was to get a general sense of how the COVID-19 outbreak was affecting tenants' ability to pay, so they could update their risk assessments in the future to be more generous to those going through hard times.
"Frankly, I could've been a lot more empathetic with the timing," he said.
In some jurisdictions, landlord reports about specific tenants will be available to future landlords, Lenz said, but tenants will have to give permission for that information to be handed over. Landlords in Canada do not have access to those reviews, he said. Naborly services about 850,000 rental units in the United States and Canada.
"It's in no way just a tenant blacklist," said Lenz.
When tenants apply for a unit, they can give consent for Naborly to collect and store information about them, Lenz said.
Privacy experts had raised concerns about tenants' ability to access information that had been written about them, since Naborly's email said "we keep reporting fully confidential and DO NOT notify your tenant that you have reported to our system."
Tenants can access and dispute any information Naborly collects by calling their support line or sending them an email, Lenz said. The company's support team deals with those requests "regularly," he said.
"Say a tenant has to be evicted because they put a meth lab in the property or...whether it's non-payment of rent, maliciously or not, and there's an eviction process, the landlord has to provide documentation and proof for us to even qualify for that to go into our system," he said. "It's not just a mob-like forum for landlords to do damage to tenants."
Since QP Briefing's Monday article on Naborly, the company has changed a blog post that said the database of tenant reports will be made "available for all our landlord users in the future."
That part now reads: "Having accurate information allows us to adapt our screening tools to ensure tenants are not unfairly viewed as intentionally delinquent on their rent obligations."
Also in the initial email sent to landlords, Naborly said it was on a "mission to truly be the landlord’s credit bureau," which raised concerns among experts who pointed out that there are only two licensed credit bureaus in Canada — Equifax and TransUnion — and that the industry is tightly controlled.
Naborly is a licensed credit reporting agency in the U.S., but in Canada, it partners with Equifax, Lenz said.
The company's messaging is "broad" across different regions, he said, which is why it may have implied that it was seeking to act as a credit bureau in Canada.
Michael Bryant, the head of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said it's still "in question" whether Naborly's collection, use and disclosure of personal data was consensual, and whether that consent was freely given by tenants.
Housing lawyer Benjamin Ries with the University of Toronto's Downtown Legal Services has sent a letter to Naborly seeking clarification on the company's practices, to determine whether to escalate the matter to the federal privacy commissioner.
"We remain concerned based on the sum of information advertised by Naborly to date, and we have asked their counsel a number of specific questions for which we will await answers," Ries said in a statement.
Lenz said the company's general council is drafting a response to Ries's letter.