Communities Accused of Applying Discriminatory Blanket Bans on Renters with Criminal Histories

In Washington State, five rental housing companies have agreed to settle allegations that they violated federal and state fair housing law by applying blanket bans on tenants with a past felony, according to a statement by State Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office.

Although criminal convictions may be grounds for housing providers to deny applicants after appropriate inquiry, fair housing laws prohibit landlords from applying overly broad bans on those convicted of crimes, because such bans are likely to discriminate against minorities, according to the statement.

The cases were based on the results of an investigation conducted by the Attorney General’s office involving 50 rental housing companies across the state. When contacted by an investigator posing as a prospect with a felony conviction, some landlords appropriately followed up with questions as to the nature, circumstances, and timing of the felony, according to investigators. However, the AG’s office alleged that five providers flatly denied applicants based on the mention of a criminal history, without asking for any further information.

Though criminal history may be grounds to refuse to rent to an individual, the AG’s office said that landlords cannot have a blanket ban on renting to anyone who has a previous felony conviction or arrest record. Instead, they must consider individual facts such as the type and severity of the offense and how long ago the offense occurred. Because certain groups of people, such as African Americans, have higher statistical rates of arrests and convictions, blanket bans have the effect of making it harder for African Americans than for other groups to find housing. This disparate impact renders blanket policies illegal, according to the statement.

Without admitting liability, the five companies agreed to resolve the allegations. The resolutions all include monetary fines and civil penalties, and they require adoption of nondiscrimination policies and training for employees and agents.

“Fair access to housing is the right of all Washingtonians,” Ferguson said in a statement. “Housing providers have a responsibility to provide that access without discrimination, and my office will make sure they live up to it.”