Study Finds Housing Discrimination and Potential Disparate Impact of Criminal Records Screening in DC

A study conducted by the Equal Rights Center, a national civil rights organization, found evidence of housing discrimination against black women with criminal histories in the District of Columbia rental market. In paired testing, the study found that white women with criminal histories were more likely to be treated favorably than black women with the same criminal histories. The study also suggests that landlords’ policies regarding criminal histories may have a disparate impact on black women as compared to white women.

The study utilized paired testing in which a white woman and a black woman were each given the same profile. One profile was of a high-income, professional woman looking for housing in the moderate-to-high price range. She had been arrested at least seven years ago as a result of a youthful indiscretion (college-era felony arrest for drug possession), with the charges ultimately dismissed. The second profile was of an entry-level professional seeking housing in the low-to-moderate price range. She had a larceny conviction from at least 11 years ago that was the result of an abusive long-term relationship that long since ended. Neither profile included a history that would indicate a current inability to be a good tenant. Each woman contacted the same landlord, posing as a single woman looking for a one-bedroom or studio apartment. Each disclosed the nature of their criminal backgrounds and asked how it may affect their rental application.

The two women received similar treatment in 42% of the tests (20 of the 47 successful tests). The white woman received more favorable treatment in 47% (22) of the tests. The black woman received more favorable treatment in 11% (5) of the tests. Differential treatment of the two women in each pair could be categorized in one of three ways: different information or quality of service; different agent reaction/encouragement in regard to the tester’s criminal history in general (for example, encouraging a tester to complete a rental application); or different agent speculation about the impact of the tester’s criminal history on the success of the rental application.

In 34% of tests, the white woman received favorable treatment with regard to information or service provided by the agent. The women received different information about criminal record screening policies, information about application fees, or follow-up and encouragement to complete a rental application. In 19% of tests, the white woman received a more sympathetic or encouraging response from the agent than did the black woman. In 15% of tests, the white woman received more favorable speculation that her criminal history would not be a problem on her rental application.

Twenty-eight percent of the tests found a criminal history screening process that suggests a disparate impact on applicants by race. A policy or process has a disparate impact if its effect or burden is felt more heavily by one race than another. Blanket bans on applicants with a criminal record, for example, fall more heavily on black applicants than white applicants because of disparities in incarceration rates. The study points out that black women are incarcerated at more than twice the rate of white women. This small study alone identified 4,646 apartments that were unavailable to anyone with a felony conviction from any point in time.

The authors also expressed concern that in more than half of the tests rental policies related to criminal histories were unclear. Testers were told they would have to apply to find out how their criminal history would impact their application. In many cases, the agent claimed that a third party approved applicants, so the landlord would have no say. The authors assert that this lack of transparency is a financial burden on applicants who may unnecessarily submit rental applications and raises potential problems in understanding the degree of disparate impact.

The report provides several recommendations, including the reevaluation and potential elimination of criminal history screening policies by housing providers; investment by housing providers in fair housing training; greater transparency regarding screening requirements; greater resources for HUD to combat discrimination through education, outreach, and enforcement; and a convening of various stakeholders and experts to develop detailed guidance for housing providers to ensure criminal history screening policies comply with the Fair Housing Act.

Unlocking Discrimination: A DC Area Testing Investigation about Racial Discrimination and Criminal Records Screening Policies in Housing is available at: