Feds to Landlords: No Blanket Bans on Renters With Criminal Records

New guidance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development may help ex-offenders find housing.
(Photo: George Wilhelm/'Los Angeles Times' via Getty Images)
Apr 5, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

The end of a prison sentence might sound like a ticket to a new life full of opportunity. But many formerly incarcerated people are haunted by their criminal record long after they’ve served their time. Now, new federal guidance could make it easier for people with criminal records to get a roof over their heads while they rebuild their lives.

Landlords who eliminate all rental applicants with criminal records can now be penalized by the federal government, according to guidelines announced Monday by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Private landlords must consider each application individually, weighing factors such as when a crime was committed, the nature of the crime, and demonstrated rehabilitation.

“This is a huge win toward people being able to rebuild constructive lives in the community,” JoAnne Page, president and CEO of the Fortune Society, told TakePart. “If you don’t have housing, everything else is shaky. This is a win for justice, for community safety, for family reunification, and for taxpayers.”

HUD’s new guidelines, if enforced, could impact a broad swath of Americans: A 2015 study found that one in three American adults have a criminal record of some kind. This includes people convicted of misdemeanors and those who were arrested but never convicted. Criminal records can not only lead to housing instability but also to poverty, joblessness, and limited access to education and public assistance.

The guidance follows a Supreme Court decision issued in June 2015 that ruled a that lawsuit that argues a housing policy or law has a discriminatory effect on a racial group doesn’t have to prove that discrimination was intentional. The case preserved a key element of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which is implemented by HUD, and allows litigants to argue that housing practices that have a disparate impact on specific racial groups are illegal, even if the effect was unintentional.

The Fortune Society, a nonprofit dedicated to aiding the reentry of former prisoners into society, filed a lawsuit in 2014 against the landlord of a rental complex in Queens, New York, to challenge a blanket ban on applicants with criminal records. The case argues that that the ban disproportionately excludes black and Latino men in violation of the Fair Housing Act. Black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men, while Latino men are two-and-a-half times more likely.

The Supreme Court’s decision bolstered the Fortune Society’s legal theory, and the HUD announcement applies that logic to people with criminal convictions.

“HUD is essentially saying that if [landlords] discriminate against people with criminal records, that will have a disproportionate impact on people of color,” said Page. “Evidentiary weight is on the side that you can’t discriminate, which greatly increases the chance that our case will be successful.”