The American Civil Liberties Union filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against a Virginia apartment complex Tuesday morning for its policy of banning all housing applications from people with criminal records.
Filed in Richmond, Va., the lawsuit accuses Wisely Properties and Multifamily Management Services, Inc., owners and operators of the Sterling Glen apartment complex, of imposing an absolute ban on considering any applicant with a felony criminal record. A number of misdemeanor offenses were also barred, including drug possession charges.
Because of the ways black people are disproportionately convicted of crimes—and receive longer prison sentences—this amounts to a de facto racially discriminatory housing policy, the ACLU argues, noting that Sterling Glen is situated in a predominantly white area where nearly half of black residents have felony convictions—despite comprising just 22 percent of the population.
Rachel Goodman, staff attorney for the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, told The Root the ban on lower-level criminal histories was particularly significant.
“We know that discrimination in the criminal justice system has led to a situation where people of color, and black folks, in particular, are really disproportionately represented among the group of folks who do have those convictions, and that disproportion is not based on who commits a crime—especially for those lower level crimes,” Goodman said. “It’s based on the way we enforce laws and who is the target of police interest and police action.”
The effect is essentially 21st-century redlining: where landlords and property managers don’t have to mention race in order to enact racially discriminatory policies, she notes.
“The history of housing segregation is really robust in this country, and we’ve had different ways that people of color are excluded from housing opportunities in every era,” said Goodman. “This is one of the most subtle and pernicious forms of housing discrimination these days, where you don’t have to mention race to keep folks out of housing.”
The suit is similar to one recently settled in New York City by the New York City Commission on Human Rights (NYCHR), which successfully argued that a Bronx housing complex had violated the Fair Housing Act when they imposed a similar ban on applicants with criminal histories.
As The Root reported at the time, such bans fly in the face of guidelines set out by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which states that a blanket policy denying housing to people based on their criminal records likely violates the Fair Housing Act if that policy doesn’t serve a legitimate business interest. Relatedly, Obama-era guidelines pointed out that arrest records are often inaccurate and incomplete, therefore a housing company’s use of such records as a basis for denying someone a place to live could lead to unwarranted denials of admission or eviction.
As the ACLU noted in a press release about the Sterling Glen lawsuit, this kind of housing discrimination creates a significant barrier to re-entry in housing, credit, and employment. And ironically, a policy ostensibly created to make tenants safer could actually make communities more unsafe.
“If you’re doubling up with relatives or if you’re homeless, it becomes that much harder to secure and maintain employment, and to stay away from the kinds of influences that may lead folks back to criminal conduct,” Goodman notes. “So housing is really absolutely central to the reentry.”
The ACLU lawsuit seeks a permanent injunction to force the owners in Sterling Glen to revise their criminal records policy so it meets anti-discriminatory state and federal housing laws.
Reversing this discriminatory policy is simple, says Goodman. Just review applicants with criminal histories on a case-by-case basis.
“If you are a landlord and what you want to do is get good tenants, you might pull the criminal record, but you would ask some follow up questions. That’s what the law requires,” she notes, adding that it doesn’t make sense to treat a 40-year-old applicant with a family and stable employment—and a decades-old marijuana possession charge—the same way you would a person with a lengthy domestic abuse record.
“The law doesn’t require that a landlord house any particular individual,” she added, “all the law requires is that the landlord or property manager consider that applicant as an individual.”