In a complaint filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia on December 12, 2017, the nonprofit Equal Rights Center (a Washington, DC civil rights group), and the Washington Lawyers Committee alleged that Mid-America Apartments policy of forbidding anyone with a “felony conviction or pending felony charge as well as certain misdemeanors or pending misdemeanor charges” from renting an apartment. The complaint alleges that the practice violates the Fair Housing Act of 1968 because it has a “disproportionate adverse impact on African Americans and Latinos.”
Mid-America is the largest corporate landlord in the United States, with more than 100,000 apartments under management across the Southwest and Southeast United States.
The complaint alleges that Mid-America enforces the policy in at least 55 apartment communities with over 20,000 units. The complaint asks the court to stop the company from enforcing the policy and demands damages “that would punish Defendants for the willful, malicious, and reckless conduct alleged herein and that would effectively deter similar conduct in the future.”
Based on the complaint, the company’s practice goes against instructions issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which require that any restrictions placed on applicants based on criminal history “must be tailored to serve the housing provider’s substantial, legitimate, nondiscriminatory interest and take into consideration such factors as the type of the crime and the length of the time since conviction.” The investigation that led to the complaint revealed that applicants who disclosed a felony conviction through the company’s online application portal were not even able to submit an application for review because a felony conviction worked as an absolute bar to applying for an apartment.
I sent a memo to clients on April 6, 2016, outlining the basic elements of the HUD policy, which essentially states that only prior convictions for crimes relating to living is a housing environment, such as drug crimes, violent crimes, property crimes, and sex offenses should be considered when making housing decisions. Also, issues such as the length of time since the conviction, the severity of the crime, and activities since the crime should all be considered in the housing decision.
This is the first major action filed against a large landlord based on criminal screening policies. It should serve as a reminder to all owners and management companies to carefully review any criminal screening policies for compliance with HUD guidance.