Feds: Denying Housing Over Criminal Record May Be Discrimination

Apr 4, 2016
Originally published on April 12, 2016 3:49 pm
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

A criminal record makes it tough to do the most basic things, like get a job or a place to live. For the nearly 100 million adults who have records, finding a rental is getting a little easier. The U.S. Department of Housing now says landlords who refuse to rent or renew a lease to people with criminal backgrounds may be violating the Fair Housing Act. NPR's Cheryl Corley has the report.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Melvin Lofton has been out of prison for more than two decades. Fifty-one years old now, he was convicted of burglary and theft when he was in his 20s. Lofton, who is unemployed, says he knows his criminal background has cost him jobs. But when it comes to housing, Lofton says he's lucky because he has a place to stay.

MELVIN LOFTON: With my mom - I've been with my mom approximately two years.

CORLEY: Without family connections though, Lofton says his convictions hurt, like the time he tried to rent a home in a trailer park.

LOFTON: I was at work, and the guy called me and told me to come pick up my keys. So I was happy to have - I got a place to stay. So then like 45 to 50 minutes later, he calls me back and says, is there something you're not telling me? So I was like, no. What is this? He said, you didn't tell me that you had a background.

CORLEY: Lofton, who had been out of prison for nearly 20 years at the time, didn't get a chance to move in. The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing based on race, color, religion and other categories. A personals criminal background is not included. But now the U.S. Department Of Housing and Urban Development says the Fair Housing Act is violated by practices that have a so-called disparate impact. HUD's Maya Rupert says that's a practice that appears neutral on its face but discriminatory in practice.

MAYA RUPERT: Because nationally we know that people of color are arrested and incarcerated at much higher and disproportionately high rates, policies that deny housing opportunities based on criminal histories have a disparate impact on racial and ethnic minorities.

CORLEY: Rupert's boss, Housing Secretary Julian Castro, puts it another way, saying when landlords refuse to rent to anyone who has an arrest record, they effectively bar the door to millions of folks of color for no good reason. So Rupert says the message for landlords is instead of blanket policies refusing to rent to people with arrest records or convictions, they must do a more detailed check of a person's criminal record and consider other factors.

RUPERT: Like, you know, how far back the conviction actually happened, the type of conviction it is, the severity of the - of the underlying conduct.

CORLEY: And whether the conviction is related to safety issues. Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League, says tying the concept of disparate impact to the Fair Housing Act recognizes that the country has created double, even lifetime penalties for some people.

MARC MORIAL: By saying even after you finish your term of incarceration and pay your dues to society, someone can say, I won't rent to you. I won't sell to you.

CORLEY: The president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Sheila Crowley, calls HUD's guidance about the Fair Housing Act bold. But she says there needs to be more affordable housing.

SHEILA CROWLEY: While this will expand housing access to people coming out of prison, it doesn't expand the supply.

CORLEY: HUD officials say what's intended, though, with this expanded view of the Fair Housing Act, is to get housing providers to consider whether their policies for those with criminal backgrounds are about keeping communities safe or if they only keep someone out of a home. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.