One in four Americans has a criminal record, as NPR's Carrie Johnson has reported. Those records can include arrests that never led to convictions, as well as convictions for a wide range of crimes — from petty to serious — that may have happened decades ago.
The Fair Housing Act (or Act) "prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, or financing of dwellings and in other housing-related activities on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status or national origin.1 HUD’s Office of General Counsel issues this guidance concerning how the Fair Housing Act applies to the use of criminal history by providers or operators of housing and real-estate related transactions. Specifically, this guidance addresses how the discriminatory effects and disparate treatment methods of proof apply in Fair Housing Act cases in which a housing provider justifies an adverse housing action – such as a refusal to rent or renew a lease – based on an individual’s criminal history."
HUD's new guidance warns that landlords could be breaking the law when they refuse to rent to people with criminal records — even if they have no intention to discriminate — because such a policy would likely have a disproportionate impact on African-American and Hispanic applicants.
Barring people based just on arrest records is no good, HUD says, because arrests alone aren't proof of guilt. And even if you only consider convictions, refusing to rent to all ex-cons — "no matter when the conviction occurred, what the underlying conduct entailed, or what the convicted person has done since then," HUD writes — also isn't defensible, since not all ex-cons will pose a risk to safety or property.
The Fair Housing Act: "Exclusions Because of Prior Arrest A housing provider with a policy or practice of excluding individuals because of one or more prior arrests (without any conviction) cannot satisfy its burden of showing that such policy or practice is necessary to achieve a substantial, legitimate, nondiscriminatory interest. As the Supreme Court has recognized, “[t]he mere fact that a man has been arrested has very little, if any, probative value in showing that he has engaged in any misconduct. An arrest shows nothing more than that someone probably suspected the person apprehended of an offense.” Because arrest records do not constitute proof of past unlawful conduct and are often incomplete (e.g., by failing to indicate whether the individual was prosecuted, convicted, or acquitted), the fact of an arrest is not a reliable basis upon which to assess the potential risk to resident safety or property posed by a particular individual. For that reason, a housing provider who denies housing to persons on the basis of arrests not resulting in conviction cannot prove that the exclusion actually assists in protecting resident safety and/or property. "
According to HUD, if a landlord uses criminal records to screen, the policy must be narrowly tailored. The guidance states a landlord would need to prove this “tailored” policy is necessary to serve a “substantial, legitimate, nondiscriminatory interest.” A landlord must be able to show its “tailored” use of criminal background checks “accurately distinguishes between criminal conduct that indicates a demonstrable risk to resident safety and/or property and criminal conduct that does not.” (Source: Employment Screening Resource)
These standards suggest that even policies that categorically exclude residents with specific types of convictions (such as violent offenses) may be unlawful if they do not take into account the resident’s specific circumstances. The fact that the guidance refers to the nature, severity, and recency of criminal conduct in its summation implies that providers cannot rely simply on the nature and severity of particular types of convictions.