A woman walks away from a free weekly food pantry in the Bronx on July 11, 2018, in New York City
Photo: Getty

The New York City Commission on Human Rights (NYCHR) today announced a settlement that could be a game-changer in the way cities tackle housing discrimination, particularly as it affects black and brown residents, by identifying companies that deny housing to prospective applicants based exclusively on their criminal history.

In an exclusive to The Root, NYCHR reports it recently settled a housing settlement with PRC Management LLC, a Bronx housing management company controlling 100 buildings across New York City, for discriminating against prospective tenants by denying them housing if they had any criminal history—without bothering to investigate the nature of the charges (or if those records were even accurate). The Commission argued the company’s policy violated the Fair Housing Act because, given that generations of black and Latinx New Yorkers have been disproportionately arrested, it amounted to racial discrimination.

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The suit was brought forward after a Hispanic tenant came forward saying she had been denied housing at a low-income complex because a background check erroneously came back saying she had a criminal history. After the Commission looked deeper into her case, they found that PRC Management had a policy of denying housing to prospective tenants with criminal histories without considering the nature, severity, or date of their arrest or criminal conduct.

The Commission found 10 other applicants who had been similarly denied—all of whom were people of color.

This ban on prospective tenants with criminal histories raised a number of flags. First, it flies 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.

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This was the case with PRC management and the unnamed applicant—whose name just so happened to match that of another woman who had been arrested before.

As a result of the suit, which was decided in October, PRC Management will pay $55,000 in emotional distress damages to the woman they denied housing and an additional $25,000 in civil penalties. They must also change and distribute new screening and application policies, properly train their staff, and invite applicants with criminal histories who were previously denied housing to reapply.

NYCHR’s win in this case hinged on some irrefutable facts about arrest rates in New York City. As with other cities across America, New York City has disproportionately locked up black and Latinx residents—particularly men. Between 2001 and 2013, despite comprising just 51 percent of New York City’s population, black and Latinx people made up about 80 percent of misdemeanor arrests and summonses.

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And it’s not because they commit more crime. “Stop-and-frisk,” the NYPD’s controversial policy of doing random searches on people suspected of having guns, was so obviously biased it was declared unconstitutional in 2013.

As data journalist Mona Chalabi explained in an infographic posted to Instagram in 2011, the NYPD did more stop-and-frisk searches on black men in New York than there were actual black men in New York. When people of color were stopped, they were less likely to be found with weapons, according to a report by Community Service Society. In Manhattan, black people stopped and frisked by the NYPD had a weapon on them just 6.3 percent of the time, compared to 11 percent of white people.

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But New York is far from the only place in America where policing and criminal justice policies disproportionately affect African Americans and Latinx people, meaning the NYCHR’s settlement could have wider implications if other cities and towns choose to follow suit.

And, as with other cities across the country, housing—its availability and affordability—has become a major issue for all New Yorkers. New developments and gentrification have reshaped the city, pushing out black and brown New Yorkers who have been affected neighborhoods for generations. With the recent announcement of an Amazon headquarters coming to Queens, N.Y., the anxiety over affordable housing has only increased among many New Yorkers.

For residents simply seeking a place to live, striking down these discriminatory bans would be life-changing.

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“For every New Yorker, access to housing is an essential part of maintaining a safe and stable life for themselves and their families, which is why under Mayor de Blasio, the NYC Commission on Human Rights has made combating housing discrimination a top priority,” Seth Hoy, a spokesperson for the Commission, told The Root.

Hoy added that the Commission has doubled the number of new investigations and continues to implement new strategies to enforce the law so that every New Yorker “has equal access and opportunity to obtain housing.”

“We hope the Commission’s law enforcement strategy, in this case, serves as a model for other cities in protecting vulnerable communities from discriminatory housing policies,” he said.