Monday, July 11, 2016

Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Urges District of Columbia Council to Lift Housing Barriers Faced by People with Criminal Histories

WASHINGTON, D.C., July 11, 2016 – The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs (Washington Lawyers’ Committee) and the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee) call upon the D.C. City Council to strengthen and enact the Fair Criminal Record Screening in Housing Act of 2016, bill 21-0706.
This landmark legislation would follow upon the success of the D.C. Fair Criminal Record Screening Amendment Act of 2014 which has helped to expand access to employment for individuals with criminal records. Bill 21-0706 represents a critical step forward in the effort to ensure successful re-entry of formerly incarcerated persons into society, reduce recidivism and advance racial justice. The D.C. City Council will hold a hearing on this bill today, Monday, July 11, 2016. A copy of the Committees’ written testimony on the bill, which includes important proposals to strengthen the bill by adding a private right of action and limiting improper discretion by housing providers, is available here.
Bill 21-0706 adopts three strategies for furthering these goals:
  1. The bill would prohibit housing providers from denying housing on the basis of an applicant’s arrest record:
  2. The bill would prohibit housing providers from asking about an applicant’s prior convictions until after a housing provider has offered an applicant a unit, contingent on a criminal background check;
  3. The bill would empower the District of Columbia Office of Human Rights to enforce the bill’s provisions.
The bill’s prohibition of the consideration of arrest records is consistent with recent guidance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) stating that barring people with arrest records is likely to violate the federal Fair Housing Act. Arrest records are not relevant to whether an applicant would be a good tenant because they do not prove that criminal activity actually occurred. In light of stark disparities in the criminal justice system, barriers to housing based on applicants’ criminal records often have a more significant impact on African-American and Latino individuals and households than they do on white individuals and households.
Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, stated: “The War on Drugs has unnecessarily swept far too many people into the criminal justice system, with a disproportionate impact on people of color.   The lifelong effects of a criminal record on the ability to meet basic needs, like employment and housing, has had a devastating impact on individuals, families and communities.   This bill is a critical measure that recognizes the importance of creating civil rights protections to help formerly incarcerated persons participate fully in the life of the District.
While we support the proposed legislation, there is a need to strengthen the enforcement mechanisms to ensure that the right is meaningful.   First, we urge that the Council create a private right of action similar to the D.C. Human Rights Act and consistent with federal civil rights statutes.   It is critical that persons aggrieved be able to protect their rights and not rely on the action of an overburdened agency.   Second, landlords who reject a tenant on the grounds of a criminal history should be required to disclose the basis of their decision and make an individualized, rather than categorical decision.  Amendments achieving these goals will help ensure that the important purpose of the statute is achieved."
Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee, stated: “People with criminal histories in D.C., including many African Americans, deserve fair and equitable housing opportunities.  The D.C. Council has an opportunity to pass legislation that will send a strong signal that barriers to re-entry in housing are unacceptable and unlawful.”


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