- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 18, 2016

D.C. landlords vastly favored white female tenants with criminal records over black female tenants with similar backgrounds, according to a study released Tuesday by the Equal Rights Center.

In 47 percent of the test cases, white women were given preferential treatment over their black counterparts who applied for the same rental housing.

“Testing results show that criminal records screening policies and practices are serving as proxies for racial discrimination in housing,” said Melvina Ford, executive director of the Equal Rights Center. “Housing providers must immediately cease engaging in illegal housing discrimination on the basis of race, whether it is intentional or unintentional.”

For the study, each participant was instructed to pose as a single woman looking for a one-bedroom or studio apartment and to disclose that she had a conviction or arrest, said Kate Scott, the center’s director of fair housing.

Of the 47 test cases, 22 showed that rental agents favored the white women even though the housing seekers all had the same criminal backgrounds. In 20 cases, no discrimination was reported against the white or the black participants. In five cases, the black women were given preferential treatment.

Ms. Scott said sites were chosen across the District to avoid an unfair focus on certain neighborhoods and to get a broader view of the problem. Participants’ criminal backgrounds ranged from a “college-era felony arrest for drug possession at least seven years ago” to a “felony conviction for larceny from at least 11 years ago.”

In some instances, rental agents told black applicants flat out that they wouldn’t be approved because of their criminal backgrounds. But those same agents told white applicants that a criminal conviction didn’t necessarily rule them out and that it would depend on how long it had been since the conviction.

The Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, which represents landlords and building owners, wasn’t aware that the Equal Rights Center’s report was being released Tuesday. An official said the group would review it with the National Apartment Association and the National Multifamily Housing Council to discuss the findings.

“Please know that the AOBA and its members are committed to providing equal access to housing for all protected classes under the law,” said Kirsten Williams, the local association’s vice president of government affairs.

Stephanie Franklin, policy and communications director at the District’s Office of Human Rights, said the agency investigates situations in which rental applicants suspect discrimination. She also said renters can take complaints to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Ms. Franklin said her office is aware that housing discrimination is underreported and that the city should make landlords more aware of what constitutes discrimination.

“This is an issue that has plagued our country, states and cities for decades,” she said. “The vast amount of incidents need to be brought to the surface.”

The study found that rental agents and management companies representing nearly 5,000 units in the District had issued a blanket ban on applicants with felony convictions on their records.

That is in direct violation with a HUD directive in April that says any agent who denies rental housing to a person because of a conviction must present a “substantial, legitimate” reason to do so.

“A housing provider that imposes a blanket prohibition on any person with any conviction record — no matter when the conviction occurred, what the underlying conduct entailed, or what the convicted person has done since then — will be unable to meet this burden,” the HUD rule states.

The study also says a blanket ban on ex-convicts also is racially discriminatory.

“Because of racial disparities in the criminal legal system, such bans by extension disproportionately limit housing opportunities for African-American applicants as compared to white applicants, in violation of the Fair Housing Act,” the Equal Rights Center study says.

D.C. Council members Kenyan McDuffie, Ward 5 Democrat, and Anita Bonds, at-large Democrat, in April introduced the Fair Criminal Record Screening for Housing Act, which would prohibit a housing provider from considering an arrest record during the application process. It would restrict a housing provider’s inquiry into an applicant’s convictions until after a conditional offer of housing. The bill is in the council’s Judiciary Committee, which Mr. McDuffie chairs.

“Finding and securing adequate housing is one of the most difficult challenges faced by formerly incarcerated people, and homelessness within this population is prevalent,” said Mr. McDuffie. “One-tenth of individuals entering prisons have recently been homeless, and many of those returning citizens end up homeless as well.”

Ms. Franklin said that kind of legislation is important for the District.

“With this pending law on the horizon, we [the District] will potentially have a unique opportunity locally to truly break ground on this issue,” she said.

• Ryan M. McDermott can be reached at rmcdermott@washingtontimes.com.

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