Bronx Management Firm Settles Claim It Denied Housing to Anyone with Criminal Record

The New York City Commission on Human Rights recently announced a settlement with a housing management company controlling 100 buildings with 5,000 units citywide, which had been charged with discriminating against applicants based on their race, color, and national origin by denying housing to applicants with criminal histories without performing individualized analysis of those records.

Under the settlement, the company agreed to pay $55,000 in emotional distress damages to an individual allegedly affected by the policy, along with $25,000 in civil penalties. The company will also change and distribute new screening and application policies, train staff on new policy and law, and invite applicants with criminal histories who were previously denied housing to reapply. The management company fully cooperated with the Commission’s investigation. The charges in this case follow U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) enforcement guidelines issued in 2016 that address the discriminatory effects of criminal history checks on Black and Hispanic housing applicants.

This is the first time in recent history that the Commission has launched such an investigation, arguing that the company’s blanket policy of denying housing to any applicant with a criminal record has a disparate impact on black and Hispanic New Yorkers, who studies show are disproportionately impacted by arrest, conviction, and incarceration rates citywide.

A blanket policy of denying housing to individuals with criminal records is likely to violate the federal Fair Housing Act when that policy doesn’t serve a legitimate business interest, according to 2017 HUD guidance. Further, the guidance points out that arrest records are often inaccurate and incomplete and that relying on them as a basis for denying or terminating someone from housing may result in unwarranted denials of admission or eviction. Although protecting residents’ safety and property may be considered a responsibility of a housing provider, the guidance states, housing providers must be able to prove that housing decisions based on criminal history actually assist in protecting residents and property. According to HUD’s guidance, “bald assertions based on generalizations or stereotypes that individuals with an arrest or conviction record pose a greater risk than any individual without such a record” do not satisfy that burden. Rather, HUD suggests that landlords should conduct individualized assessments of applicants’ criminal records including the nature, severity, and date of their arrest or criminal conduct, rather than categorical exclusions.

In New York City, it’s unlawful to discriminate against individuals in housing based on race, color, and national origin, including implementing policies or practices that discriminate against individuals based on their protected class. The Commission initiated an investigation of the company after an Hispanic resident reported that she was denied housing because of a background report the company obtained that erroneously reported her criminal history. During its investigation, the Commission found that the company had a blanket policy of denying housing to prospective tenants with criminal histories without considering the nature, severity, or date of their arrest or criminal conduct, and had denied housing to as many as 10 other applicants of color because of their criminal histories.

City statistics show that blacks and Hispanics are incarcerated at rates disproportionate to their share of the population in New York City. According to the NYC Department of Corrections, black New Yorkers were incarcerated at a rate of more than double their proportion of the city’s general population last year, comprising 53.6 percent of the total inmate population in New York City in 2017 but representing only 24.4 percent of the city’s general population. Similarly, Hispanic New Yorkers comprised 33.3 percent of the total inmate population in New York City but only 29 percent of the city’s general population. These statistics track national incarceration rates among black and Hispanic Americans who are arrested and incarcerated at rates disproportionate to their share of the general population.

“For every New Yorker, access to housing is an essential part of maintaining a safe and stable life for themselves and their families, which is why the Commission is conducting strategic and thorough investigations in this area to root out policies that wholesale discriminate against entire communities,” Sapna V. Raj, Assistant Commissioner of the Law Enforcement Bureau at the NYC Commission on Human Rights, said in a statement. “Everyone in New York City deserves equal access to housing and we hope the Commission’s strategy in this case serves as a model for other cities in protecting vulnerable communities from discriminatory housing policies.”