Criminal History and Fair Housing – Change is in the Wind

fair-housing-imageHaving a criminal record can make accessing decent rental housing a herculean task. Many properties have blanket bans that prevent acceptance to housing due to having any misdemeanor or felony history at any point in one’s lifetime. This is the case despite research that has shown that over time the chance that a person with a criminal record has of re-offending decreases to the point that it nearly approximates someone who has never committed an offense.

However, the federal government is starting to realize that such policies can have a disparate impact on protected classes under the Fair Housing Act. This is because the implementation of various laws has systemically targeted racial minority groups (called protected classes under the Fair Housing Act).

For example, African Americans represent 12% of the total population of drug users in the United States. Yet, they make up 38% percent of those arrested for drug offenses and 59% of those in state prison for drug offenses. Racial minority defendants are also less likely to be offered community service or time served as a plea offer for a felony – they are much more frequently offered only jail or prison time.

As a result of this disparity, on April 4th, 2016, the Office of Housing and Urban Development offered new guidance that could change the way housing applicants’ criminal records are screened.

The guidance states that even neutral criminal record policies (i.e. those not specifically targeting a protected class) could still disproportionately exclude members of a racial minority group and may need to be changed as to not violate the law. If it can be shown that the policy does cause this exclusion, then the housing provider will need to change their policy to no longer broadly ban all criminal history from their property. Instead, they will need to look at the nature, severity, and recency of the criminal conduct to make their decision about housing the individual. Additionally, only relying on arrests to bar people from a property will likely be something that could be challenged under the Fair Housing Act.

If you have been rejected for housing due to criminal history, this gives you a new tool to advocate for yourself. This is especially so if you were not given the opportunity to inform the housing provider about the circumstances surrounding the criminal conduct, evidence you could provide of being a good tenant since the conduct occurred or evidence of rehabilitation efforts you have made.

If you think this could apply to you or someone you know, contact your local Fair Housing agency or Legal Aid office to ask for assistance. In the Philadelphia area, you can contact the Housing Equality Center , who is working on this issue in that region.