Federal Lawsuit Could Impact How Austin Landlords Screen People With Criminal Records

Dec 26, 2017

An advocacy group in Austin is watching a federal lawsuit that challenges a New York landlord's blanket ban on renting to people with criminal backgrounds.   

The federal government has advised landlords against such bans, saying they could violate fair housing laws, but the practice persists in many cities. By some estimates, about 1 in 3 American adults has some type of criminal record and can face challenges finding housing.

Attorney Ryan Downer represents The Fortune Society, a New York-based group that provides social services to people recently released from prison. Downer says a few of The Fortune Society’s clients were able to get leases at the Sand Castle, an apartment complex in Queens.

“That was before the Sand Castle found out what Fortune actually is and does and that it helps people with criminal records,” he says. “Sand Castle discovered that all of their clients have criminal records and that this is their client population. They told them, in no uncertain terms, ‘No, we don’t accept people with criminal records.’”

The Fortune Society sued Sand Castle’s management company in federal court in 2014. It argued that blanket bans on housing people with criminal backgrounds disproportionately affect black and Latino men and are therefore illegal.

“You can have a policy that is not facially discriminatory, but is discriminatory in its effect,” Downer says.  

The federal case is ongoing, but if the judge rules in The Fortune Society’s favor, Downer thinks it could inform housing practices across the U.S.

The Austin/Travis County Reentry Roundtable has been researching the issue. The group’s housing chairwoman, Bree Williams, says one of the challenges is figuring out how to interpret guidelines from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“So the lawsuit coming out of New York, we believe, will be the first opportunity to get some clarification from the court system on exactly how to implement the HUD guidance,” she says.

In a 2016 report, the group found that about 40 percent of the region’s affordable housing providers had vague or incomplete standards for screening people with criminal backgrounds. Williams says her group is trying to work proactively to inform better practices.

“We’re trying to create our own sort of collaborative solution and leaning on fair housing experts and criminal defense experts, as well as the property management community, to see if we can come together to identify a solution that we think will work locally,” she says. 

The group plans to release a screening guide for landlords early next year.