Landlords Face New Tests for Rejecting Convicts

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Under a new fair housing policy announced Monday, landlords cannot arbitrarily deny housing to persons with an arrest record or criminal record who has served their time in prison.

"Today, I am proud to announce new guidance that makes it clear HUD will use the full force of the law to protect the fair housing rights of folks who've been arrested or who are returning to their communities after serving time in jail or prison," said Julian Castro, the secretary of Department of Housing and Urban Development.

As many as 100 million U.S. adults — or nearly one-third of the population — have a criminal record of some sort. And black and Latino Americans are arrested at a significantly higher rate than whites, according to HUD.

"The fact that you were arrested shouldn't keep you from getting a job and it shouldn't keep you from renting a home," Castro said Monday at an annual meeting of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. "When someone has been convicted of a crime and has paid their debt to society, then they ought to have an effective second chance at life. The ability to find housing is an indispensable second change in life."

HUD is also making it clear that "one strike" policies that bar anyone with a prior arrest record from renting public or private housing will no longer be acceptable.

Under the new fair housing guidance, landlords have to be "thoughtful" when using criminal background checks, according to Amy Glassman, an attorney at Ballard Spahr in Washington.

"You can't just use arrest records, you have to look at actual convictions," she said in an interview Monday.

Landlords should look for the kinds of convictions that might indicate the applicant would not be a good tenant, such as drug-related crimes or prostitution convictions.

"You can look at certain kinds of convictions that are indicative of the likelihood of destroying property, disturbing the peace or certain kinds of violent crimes," Glassman said, "but you also need to look at the severity of the crimes and how long ago they occurred."

A drunk driving violation might not be a justifiable reason for rejecting an applicant, but rejecting someone for a recent felony gun violation or a conviction for passing bad rent checks might be justified.

Glassman also pointed out that landlords have to consider when the conviction occurred and whether the applicant might be a good tenant now.

"Landlords need to look at whether an applicant can show mitigating factors that show that the behavior that led to the conviction is not likely to be repeated. Drug treatment, for example, might be a mitigating factor for drug offenses," Glassman said.

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