Guidelines Bar Housing Discrimination Based on Criminal Records

Refusing housing to Washington, D.C. residents with criminal records constitutes discrimination, according to guidelines released by the Department of Housing and Urban Development on April 4.

The guidelines are based on the 1968 Fair Housing Act passed, which prohibits barring any individual from buying or renting a residence based on their race, religion, gender or national origin. The HUD’s new guidance states that citizens with criminal records are protected from housing discrimination under this law.

Under the guidelines, landlords must prove that any policy taking criminal records into consideration legitimately serves to protect resident safety or property. This includes reducing discriminatory generalizations by evaluating potential tenants or buyers on a case-by-case basis, taking into account what the conviction was and when it occurred.

At the National Low Income Housing Coalition Policy Forum on April 4, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro said having fair access to housing helps released felons reintegrate into society.

“Our nation can’t fulfill any of our major goals unless we also focus on housing,” Castro said. “We’re partnering with the Justice Department to invest nearly $2 million to help young public housing residents clear their criminal records, find work and have a better shot at succeeding once they rejoin their communities.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the probability of a black male born in 2001 to be incarcerated is 32 percent, while Latino and white males have a 17 and 6 percent chance, respectively.

Castro stressed that this disproportionality continues after felons are released from prison.

“When landlords summarily refuse to rent to anyone who has an arrest record, they may effectively and disproportionately bar the door to millions of folks of color for no good reason at all,” Castro said. “It is wrong — and it has to end.”

Georgetown University Law Center professor Marc Howard, who leads the Prison Reform Project, which brings students to Jessup Correctional Institute to help inmates fill out paperwork, said current housing regulations unjustly hinder previously incarcerated individuals.

“It’s very hard to find housing, whether it’s public housing or private housing, and the sort of strike that landlords hold against them, while perhaps understandable, in some contexts overall is just way too generalized where anyone with a record for any type of offense is just automatically ruled out by the landlords,” Howard said. “It’s unfair for people who are starting anew and who have paid their debt to society.”

Alison Forger (COL ’18), a student participating in the Prison Reform Project, discussed the housing challenges faced by parolees during the reintegration process.

“We found housing as a huge part in a chain of events that caused a lot of problems for people on parole,” Forger said. “Not only can these people not live in public housing, they also cannot live with any other relative who’s been incarcerated.”

Mattie Haag (COL ’18), who travelled to New York City for an “Ethics of Criminal Justice” Alternative Breaks Program in March, said the impacts of incarceration are long lasting and can follow released felons throughout their lives.

“The scary thing is that the government is preventing people from getting reformed by the system,” Haag said. “It’s supposed to be designed that you do your time and you become reformed in some way, but it ends up affecting every single part of your life afterwards. You’re always going to be defined by that crime.”

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