In 2016, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued new guidance for criminal history background checks, which made it easier for applicants with criminal histories to get housing.
The change in guidance addressed a discrimination issue in which applicants were being denied housing based only on charges with no convictions, or on minor criminal convictions (such as jaywalking).
Despite policy advancements like this, local “Crime Free Housing” programs that promote discrimination against persons with a criminal history remain popular throughout the country.
How Can “Crime Free Housing” Discriminate?
There are a number of ways that the idea of Crime Free Housing can discriminate against those with a criminal record.
For example, the 2016 HUD directive cited a report which showed that in 2012, nearly one-third of the U.S. population had some type of criminal record.
The directive also stated that African-Americans and Hispanics are arrested, convicted, and incarcerated at rates disproportionate to their percentage of the general population. Because of this, denials based on criminal records could be discriminatory.
Now in 2021, housing providers are partnering with homeless programs to house persons coming out of prisons and jails. Under direction of the Biden Administration, HUD has continued to direct housing authorities to be lenient to persons with minor criminal records, or dismissed charges.
Earlier this year, HUD Secretary Fudge said the following about housing for persons with a criminal record:
“The President and I believe that everyone deserves a second chance and a stable home from which to rebuild their lives. No person should exit a prison or jail only to wind up on the streets. To that end, HUD is committed to taking a comprehensive approach to addressing the housing needs of returning citizens and people with criminal records, and by doing so, increasing public safety within our communities. Addressing reentry housing needs also furthers the Biden Administration’s commitment to advancing equity and reversing systemic racism, given the racial disparities evident in the criminal justice system.”
Crime Free Rental Programs in the Private Sector
In contrast to HUD’s advancements toward eliminating discrimination in housing, Crime Free Housing sprung up almost 30 years ago, and has spread across the nation’s police departments, city councils and the private rental housing industry.
Crime Free Housing was started in Mesa Arizona in 1992 by a Mesa policeman, during the time of the federal one strike laws.
The program involves owners and landlords attending mandatory training sessions, attending numerous follow-up seminars, posting signs on apartment properties, and using Crime Free Housing logos on stationery and documents.
Many small towns and cities, mid-sized police departments and city and county councils are involved with this program, or have adapted similar ordinances and requirements. This is despite lawsuits, complaints of discrimination, and numerous actions taken by local branches of the ACLU and in one instance, HUD.
One of the most egregious consequences of these Crime Free Housing programs was the legalization of evicting victims of domestic violence.
One part of a Crime Free Housing program includes a “nuisance ordinance,” which instructs landlords to evict families for calling 9-1-1 too often (in one town, four 9-1-1 calls in 30 days were grounds for eviction). This nuisance ordinance punished the victims.
Crime Free Housing programs in many areas of the country have been legally determined to be discriminatory.
Between 2017 through 2020, the ACLU filed complaints, lawsuits, or briefs concerning Crime Free Housing laws and nuisance ordinances throughout the nation. Two of the most notable were:
- Somai V. Bedford in Ohio. The ACLU stated that “Bedford’s nuisance ordinance penalizes property owners when two or more perceived violations of any law, excluding traffic violations, occur near the home or involve a resident of the property within a one-year period.”
Also the ACLU said that “The city enforces the ordinance based on calls for police assistance — even if the resident is the victim of the crime or needs aid.” An agreement was reached with the City of Bedford to repeal their Crime Activity Nuisance Ordinance and pay $350,000 in fees, damages, and costs.
- Groton V. Pirro in New York. The ACLU filed an amicus brief in defense of a landlord who was notified by the Board of Trustees of the Village of Groton that one of his tenants accumulated enough points to constitute a public nuisance and filed a lawsuit against the landlord. The court concluded the Groton ordinance was unconstitutional under the First Amendment.
Other actions taken against these types of ordinances and programs include:
- Hesperia, California-The ACLU of California brought a lawsuit against the City of Hesperia. The city lost the lawsuit and was ordered to pay $485,000 in court and litigation fees to the California ACLU.
- Adelanto, California – After pressure from the ACLU, and after Hesperia lost the ACLU’s lawsuit, the City of Adelanto repealed its Crime Free ordinance in 2020. Under Adelanto’s Crime Free ordinance, landlords would have been fined up to $1,000 a day for not participating and thrown in jail for up to six months.
- Hemet, California– HUD announced in a 2020 press release that it reached an agreement with the City of Hemet regarding the city’s Crime Free Housing program. The City agreed to appearl the ordinances which HUD regarded as discriminatory, and create a fund to improve housing in the city for low-to-moderate income families.
- Savannah, Georgia- The City of Savannah suspended its Crime Free Housing program after receiving a letter from the ACLU of Georgia. The letter outlined the reasons the Savannah-Chatham Crime Free program was potentially discriminatory.
- Granite City, Illinois – Granite City changed a part of its Crime Free ordinance after facing two lawsuits and a change in State laws.
- Faribault, Minnesota– A lawsuit was brought on by the American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of Minnesota against the City of Faribault because of their Crime Free Housingordinances. Coincidentally, their Crime Free Housing program came into being around the time a growing number of Somali families were moving to Faribault.
- Saint Louis Park, Minnesota – The Town of Saint Louis Park repealed a Crime Free Housing ordinance after a local television station report. It revealed the practice of forcing landlords to evict tenants if a crime was reported, even if the tenants were never charged with a crime.
- Painesville, Ohio– Painesville amended their Crime Free program after the ACLU advised them their screening procedures were discriminatory.
Despite the actions of the ACLU, HUD and other advocate groups, the Crime Free Housing programs, ordinances and rules still are popular throughout the nation. Many violate First Amendment rights and include forcing landlords to take Draconian measures against families who are not bad tenants and are not breaking any laws.
Persons with disabilities, single parent families, and victims of domestic violence are the ones hurt the most by these Crime Free programs because of forced unnecessary evictions. Victims of domestic violence are especially being unduly punished for the actions of their abusers.
Crime Free Housing programs and ordinances also lead to landlords having to pay registration fees to enroll in training programs they don’t want or need and unnecessary evictions.
In many areas, the local police are guiding and directing landlords on what to do with their properties and in the process, they most likely are violating the Fair Housing Act, First Amendment rights and in some cases, Fourteenth Amendment rights. These violations result in complaints, lawsuits and heavy fines against cities and counties and taxpayer money is being used to defend their harsh policies.
What You Can Do
If you believe you have experienced discrimination in housing, you can file a complaint by contacting HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at (800) 669-9777 or (800) 927-9275 (TTY).
Housing discrimination complaints may also be filed online at the Fair Housing Complaint Procedure.