“Criminal records pose lifetime barriers, especially in the search for housing, where background checks are prevalent and landlords have nearly unfettered discretion to deny people with conviction records.”
According to a Brennan Center report, as many Americans have criminal records as college diplomas. This is the stark reality of mass incarceration in the United States. Criminal records pose lifetime barriers, especially in the search for housing, where background checks are prevalent and landlords have nearly unfettered discretion to deny housing to people with conviction records.
This mission of the Fair Housing Justice Center is to eliminate housing discrimination. Nearly 750,000 New York City residents have a conviction record—and 80 percent are Black or Latinx. We know that we will never eliminate race discrimination in housing if we fail to protect people who have conviction records from discrimination caused by background checks.
The Fair Housing Justice Center’s anti-discrimination work has led to a multitude of lawsuits alleging that screening practices are racially discriminatory. For example, in May 2021, Ms. L. Smith, an African American mother and licensed medical health professional, applied for an apartment in a city-financed affordable housing development and was rejected because of a nearly decade-old felony conviction that had no bearing on her suitability as a tenant. Ms. Smith was in the final stages of securing an apartment and was an ideal applicant for the housing: she had good credit, a steady income, and an excellent record for paying her rent.
With paperwork finalized and keys finally in hand, Ms. Smith was flatly rejected just before her move-in date because the building’s leasing agent learned that Ms. Smith had a felony record stemming from a terrible mistake she had made in her past while dealing with the trauma of domestic violence. Though she was employed as a staffing manager for critical healthcare sites and volunteered regularly in her community teaching basic medical skills, she was left homeless days before she was supposed to move into her new apartment.
The use of criminal background screening is a primary driver of housing discrimination and homelessness. The criminal legal system has already held these individuals accountable or has resolved the arrest in their favor. Why should additional barriers exist for those who have been punished for their actions? Stable housing is fundamental to helping people reintegrate back into society after incarceration. Housing provides the foundation from which people can maintain employment, care for their families, and contribute to communities. We are all safer, and our communities and economy healthier, when we ensure that everyone has access to housing.
As a recipient of federal funding, the City of New York has a duty to affirmatively further fair housing, which requires that the city work to remove discriminatory barriers to housing opportunity.
We cannot achieve racial justice without fair housing justice. The New York City Council can end discriminatory practices that exclude qualified applicants from housing by passing Intro 2047, the Fair Chance for Housing Act, which would ensure that arrest and conviction records are not an impediment to accessing housing.
The bill is an important step toward correcting racial inequities in housing. The Council already committed to passing this bill in its Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative Plan. Nearly seven months later, there has been no action. Cities like Seattle, WA and Oakland, CA have already passed fair chance legislation to address homelessness and racial equity.
Extensive research has proven Black and Latinx populations are disproportionately convicted and incarcerated in comparison to their white counterparts. Thus, criminal records-based barriers to housing have a disproportionate impact on people of color. But merely recognizing that structural inequalities exist in the criminal legal system is not enough. The City Council needs to protect New Yorkers now.
Britny McKenzie is the policy coordinator at the Fair Housing Justice Center.