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HUD discourages 'blanket ban' on criminal records in housing

Recent federal guidance may make it easier for those with a criminal record to find housing. 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says a criminal record can have a disparate impact on an individual’s right to fair housing, and that impact needs to be recognized by landlords and other agencies.

The guidance was released this month by the department's Office of General Counsel.

"We get an extraordinary number of calls from individuals who have been denied housing based on a criminal background."

Elizabeth Stoddard is the director of advocacy at the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan.

"And I’m not saying that all of those calls would be considered discriminatory. But I know that criminal background is a huge barrier to accessing housing for people in our community, and I think across the nation."

Stoddard says the guidance is not a new rule, or law.

What it does is provide clarity – and context.

"What HUD is saying here is, certain policies that just have a blanket ban against any kind of criminal history, or take into account arrest records, have what’s called a disparate impact or discriminatory effect on the basis of race and national origin. Particularly on African-American or Hispanic individuals."

HUD says nearly a third of adults nationwide have a criminal record of some kind, which skews heavily to minority communities. And while a criminal background is not a protected class, race and national origin are.

It applies to other protected classes as well, including disability and familial status –such as families or single parents with children. The center says those two factors made up the majority of local cases in 2015.

Liz Keegan is the center’s director of education and outreach. 

"One of the challenges that the housing providers face is that there’s some grey area under fair housing law."

Keegan says the majority of local landlords are just trying to do the right thing. The center offers trainings and other educational opportunities for landlords and other rental or housing agencies.

"And we can rely on the guidance to inform our education and outreach."

"So we always treat it as an opportunity to really be proactive, help the housing providers be in compliance. And therefore then open up further housing opportunity for our residents and our communities."

April's guidance follows similar language published by HUD last year related to public housing.

It also follows a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling last summer recognizing the disparate impact theory.

Hilary is a General Assignment and Enterprise reporter for WGVU Public Media. She joined WGVU in September 2014 after several years of experience as a local news reporter, anchor and photojournalist in Midland, Saginaw and Bay counties. She's also worked as a financial and business reporter and audio field producer.
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