House and home

White and black women both told landlords they had criminal records. Guess who got treated better?

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Since 1980, the Sentencing Project believes the number of incarcerated women in America has increased from about 26,000 to 215,000, with black women twice as likely to be imprisoned than white women. There’s a growing need for jobs and housing for formerly incarcerated people after they are released. But a recent study conducted by the Equal Rights Center highlights the problems black women have finding homes after they have served their time.

In a test of landlords in the Washington D.C. area, the ERC found many properties were reluctant to rent to black women with a criminal record compared to white women with the same conviction.

The center sent applicants to test 60 different properties around D.C. A black woman and a white woman would separately apply at each property and disclose during the process that they had a previous felony conviction so the landlords’ reactions could be compared.

They found that about 47% of testers reacted in a way that favored the white applicant. In some instances, the black applicant was told outright that her application wouldn’t be approved due to the conviction while the white woman was told a third-party background check would make the decision. In another case, the black woman was told that if she had a felony conviction her application would be outright declined, whereas the white applicant was told “we can probably work something out.”

Even without the disparate treatment, situations like the last one could possibly be illegal. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development ruled last April that, because of the disproportionate rate at which black people are incarcerated, blanket bans on criminal convictions could possibly violate the Fair Housing Act’s anti-discrimination protections. ERC’s tests found similar potential legal issues at 28% of the sites they tested.

Unfortunately, race-based discrimination against people with criminal records can be a tough problem to fight. A similar study based on calling and testing employers found that “ban the box” campaigns, designed to help people with criminal records get jobs, had the effect of making hiring managers more likely to reject all black applicants, not just those with a prior conviction.

The ERC’s report called for new legislation on the federal, state and local level as well as better enforcement of existing laws. They also called for landlords to change how they do their business, but don’t hold your breath for that to happen on its own.

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