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Another Voice: Time to reframe criminal background checks in housing

By Katherine Russell-Sponaugle

Should landlords place heavy weight on a prospective tenant’s criminal record? There is more to this than meets the eye. As education specialist at Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME), I advise landlords to think open-mindedly about criminal records and consider each person’s rehabilitation efforts, the nature of the crime, the person’s age when the crime was committed and length of time since conviction.

Screening tenants with background checks isn’t considered discriminatory under fair housing law as long as this requirement is applied to all applicants equally. Landlords want to feel secure, and they have an obligation to prevent crime on their property and provide a safe dwelling for other tenants. One might reason that rejecting anyone with a criminal history is an efficient way to pre-empt bad situations, but such zero-tolerance policies can be counterproductive.

Studies show that barriers in housing contribute to criminal recidivism. Therefore, as long as background checks limit housing opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals, we as community members have enormous impact on the success of someone’s release. Access to housing can be the difference between returning to prison or retaining employment, reuniting with family and reintegrating.

There are also ethical questions at hand. A large body of research has confirmed there are racial biases in charging, prosecuting and sentencing African-Americans. If our criminal justice system shows racial bias, is it ethical for society to perpetuate its effects by stigmatizing formerly incarcerated individuals? Since this disparate impact exists, what HOME fears are landlords using criminal background checks as a pretext for racial discrimination.

In recent months, we have seen a step in a more tolerant direction. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development put forth guidance for public housing agencies and owners of federally assisted housing disallowing the use of arrest records in selecting tenants unless a conviction has been made. The guidance also recommends best practices on evaluating prospective tenants with criminal convictions, similar to my recommendations in the first paragraph. However, it doesn’t apply to private housing providers.

Nearly one in three Americans holds some type of police record. These numbers should at least cause society to rethink the prejudicial mindset of “once a criminal, always a criminal.” We must ask the questions: Should communities continue to punish those who have completed their sentences and are trying to lead better lives? Isn’t it doubly harmful to make past wrongdoings a lifelong barrier to economic stability?

Katherine Russell-Sponaugle is the education specialist at Housing Opportunities Made Equal Inc.