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Jeffrey Rembaum, Esq., Kaye Bender Rembaum Sep 9, 2022 15 min read

Crime Pays | HUD Takes More Action to Protect Some But Not All Felons

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW REGARDING OWNER AND TENANT APPLICATIONS

Imagine this: Harold Homeowner is selling his house located in your community association. Billy Buyer makes application to the board to purchase the unit. However, he is denied because he is a felon with a dark past. Next thing you know, your association is under federal investigation for Federal Fair Housing violations and exposed to tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars of fines. If you think this can’t happen, think again!

Generally speaking, people with criminal records are not a protected class under the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The Act made it illegal to discriminate against people from renting or buying a home, securing a mortgage, or seeking housing assistance on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, and familial status. On April 4, 2016, HUD’s Office of General Counsel published a memo titled “Guidance on Application of Fair Housing Act Standards to the Use of Criminal Records by Providers of Housing and Real Estate-Related Transactions.” Then, on March 31, 2022, President Biden declared April 2022 as Second Chance Month, emphasizing the importance of helping persons who have had criminal involvement reenter society, reunite with their families, and find stable and safe homes. Just days later on April 12, 2022, HUD Secretary Fudge issued a memorandum instituting an agency-wide effort to review HUD’s programs, its funding recipients, and program participants to ensure they “are as inclusive as possible in favor of individuals with criminal pasts.” Excerpts from the June 10, 2022, HUD memo follow:

“Disparities throughout the United States’ criminal justice system are well established and persistent. Blacks represent roughly 13 percent of the total U.S. population but account for roughly 27 percent of all arrests. In 2019, the incarceration rate of Black males was 5.7 times that of White non-Hispanic males, while the incarceration rate of Black females was 1.7 times the rate of White non-Hispanic females. A recent study also reflects that Hispanics are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that is 1.3 times the incarceration rate of White non-Hispanics. In addition, updated data shows that individuals with disabilities are also disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system. Research shows that these disparities cannot be simply attributed to certain groups committing more crimes and are better explained by biases in the criminal justice system. These disparities extend to housing. Housing providers frequently employ policies or practices that exclude individuals with criminal involvement from housing, which should raise red flags for investigators.” [emphasis added]

On April 4, 2016, HUD’s Office of General Counsel issued its Guidance on Application of Fair Housing Act Standards to the Use of Criminal Records by Providers of Housing and Real Estate-Related Transactions. This guidance described how to assess claims of illegal discrimination under the Federal Fair Housing Act. It applies to a wide range of entities covered by the Act, including private landlords, management companies, condominium associations or cooperatives, third-party screening companies, HUD-subsidized housing providers, and public entities that operate, administer, or fund housing or that enact ordinances that restrict access to housing based on criminal involvement. HUD advises that using criminal history to screen, deny lease renewal, evict, or otherwise exclude individuals from housing may be illegal under the Fair Housing Act under three different theories of liability:

i)   discriminatory intent, 
ii)  discriminatory effects, and
iii) refusal to make reasonable accommodations.

Discriminatory Intent: Claims that a housing provider has used criminal records or other criminal history information to discriminate intentionally in violation of the Act should be investigated in a manner similar to other allegations of intentional discrimination. Criminal records or other criminal history information may be a pretext for unequal treatment of individuals because of race, color, national origin, disability, or another protected characteristic.

“Examples of evidence that would support a finding of reasonable cause to believe that disparate treatment occurred include (not an exhaustive list):

  • A housing provider routinely advises Native American applicants about a criminal records screening policy but does not advise White applicants about the policy.
  • A housing provider applied a criminal background screening policy to a Black applicant but did not apply the policy to a White applicant.
  • A housing provider rejected a Hispanic applicant based on his criminal record but rented to a White applicant with a comparable criminal record.
  • A property manager discouraged a Black applicant with a criminal record from applying, saying the individual’s record would likely lead to a rejection, but encouraged a White individual with a comparable criminal record to apply, saying that it was possible the record would not turn up and offering the White individual an application form.
  • A housing provider evicted a Black tenant who was convicted of a crime but did not evict a White tenant who was convicted of a similar crime.
  • After learning that an applicant was previously homeless and hospitalized for treatment of a mental health condition, a management company departed from its standard procedures and conducted a criminal background screening of the applicant.
  • A locality applies a crime-free ordinance requiring the eviction of criminally involved residents in a neighborhood with a significant Black or Hispanic population but does not apply the ordinance in neighborhoods that are predominantly populated by White households.”

DISCRIMINATORY EFFECT: [author’s note—These are disparate impact claims, meaning the housing provider did not mean to intentionally discriminate, but the effect of the decision resulted in discrimination.] Claims that a housing provider’s policy or practice concerning criminal background screening or other criminal history information creates an unjustified discriminatory effect in violation of the Act should be investigated using the analysis described in the 2016 Guidance. The three steps to a discriminatory effects analysis follow.

“Investigators must gather evidence regarding whether the challenged criminal history policy or practice actually or predictably results in a disparate impact on a protected class. This involves 1) identifying the housing provider’s relevant practices or policies, both written and in practice, and 2) identifying statistics which show whether the identified policies actually or predictably result in a disparate impact on a protected class.

If a policy denies tenancy to anyone with a felony arrest or conviction over the past 10 years, the investigator should focus on felony conviction and arrest data over the past 10 years for the relevant populations. For example, data showing that Hispanics consist of 20 percent of the respondent’s applicants but 70 percent of those excluded due to a criminal record policy is evidence that the criminal record screening policy has a disproportionate impact on Hispanic applicants. Data showing that Black individuals comprise 65 percent of the housing provider’s tenants, but 95 percent of those evicted under a policy to evict based on an arrest indicates that the policy to evict for an arrest has a disproportionate impact on Black tenants. If the policy is necessary to achieve a substantial, legitimate, nondiscriminatory interest, investigators should gather information and analyze whether the same interest could be served by another practice that has a less discriminatory effect. If so, respondent’s defense fails.” [emphasis added]

Relevant individualized evidence might include the facts or circumstances surrounding the criminal conduct; the age of the individual at the time of the conduct; evidence that the individual has maintained a good tenant history before and/or after the conviction or conduct; and evidence of rehabilitation efforts.

FAILURE TO MAKE A REASONABLE ACCOMMODATION: For example, a reasonable accommodation to a criminal background screening policy or practice may be required when there is evidence that the individual’s disability contributed to the criminal conduct at issue, and there are mitigating circumstances that eliminate or significantly reduce the risk of harm to others or property, such as improvements resulting from previous on ongoing therapy or treatment. (The Fair Housing Act provides that the current illegal use of controlled substances is not considered a disability under the Act. Additionally, the Act does not protect a person whose tenancy would constitute a “direct threat” to the health and safety of other individuals or result in substantial physical damage to the property of others, unless the threat can be eliminated or significantly reduced by reasonable accommodation.) The housing provider thus must have reliable, objective evidence that a person with a disability currently poses a direct threat that cannot be significantly reduced before excluding them from housing on that basis.”

Many questions result from this particular theory of liability. Is HUD saying that if the felon had a recognized disability under the Act that contributed to criminal behavior then the criminal behavior should be overlooked? At a minimum, it should be considered by the housing provider. The  June 10, 2022, HUD Memo concludes with “TIPS from HUD” as follows:

“PRIVATE HOUSING PROVIDERS SHOULD CONSIDER NOT USING CRIMINAL HISTORY TO SCREEN TENANTS FOR HOUSING. If housing providers choose to use criminal background screening policies or practices, they should consider taking the following steps to avoid potential violation of the Fair Housing Act:

  • Have a written criminal background screening policy that is made available to all applicants.
  • Ensure the housing provider can justify their policy with reliable evidence showing that it actually assists in protecting resident safety and/or property.
  • Ensure that any policy considers the nature, severity, and recency of criminal conduct.
  • Avoid the use of third-party screening companies that utilize algorithms.
  • Before making an adverse decision related to an applicant’s or tenant’s criminal involvement, provide the applicant or tenant with the criminal record, indicate which specific part of the record may form the basis of an adverse decision, and give the applicant or tenant the opportunity to correct inaccurate information or explain extenuating circumstances related to that record.
  • Conduct an individualized assessment that considers relevant mitigating information beyond that contained in an individual’s criminal record, as this is likely to have a less discriminatory effect than categorical exclusions that do not take such additional information into account. Relevant individualized evidence might include: the facts or circumstances surrounding the criminal conduct; the age of the individual at the time of the conduct; how long ago the criminal conduct occurred, evidence that the individual has maintained a good tenant history before and/or after the conviction or conduct; and evidence of rehabilitation efforts.
  • Housing providers must ensure that that they are not engaging in disparate treatment in any individualized review process. One study found that when housing providers used discretionary criminal record screening policies—or policies that evaluated prospective tenants on a “case by case” basis—they favored White applicants over similarly situated Black applicants 55 percent of the time.”

The memo concludes with this statement: “We will continue to work collaboratively to ensure that the Fair Housing Act’s protections are realized by all protected classes.” Thus, any reader of the HUD memo can only conclude that HUD clearly intends to protect the felon when such felon is already a member of a protected class, which includes race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, and familial status.

In light of this far-reaching HUD memo, condominium and homeowner associations would be well advised to check in with their association’s attorney prior to denying an applicant based on their criminal past and when revising application procedures, too. A copy of the June 10, 2022, HUD memo can be found by clicking here.

Jeffrey Rembaum, Esq. of Kaye, Bender, Rembaum attorneys at law, legal practice consists of representation of condominium, homeowner, commercial and mobile home park associations, as well as exclusive country club communities and the developers who build them. Mr. Rembaum is a Certified Specialist in Condominium and Planned Development Law. He is the creator of ‘Rembaum’s Association Roundup’, an e-magazine devoted to the education of community association board members, managers, developers and anyone involved with Florida’s community associations.  His column appears monthly in the Florida Community Association Journal. Every year since 2012, Mr. Rembaum has been selected to the Florida Super Lawyers list and was also named Legal Elite by Florida Trends Magazine. He can be reached at 561-241-4462.