Is Fair Housing Fair?

It depends on who you are.  Fair housing laws were created in 1968 to make sure landlords treated all potential tenants the same with screening procedures, tenant selection and application fees.  HUD hires people to test out fair housing laws and prosecutes those who aren’t treating applicants fairly.

I’d like to challenge the framework of fair housing rules where they are used to screen out certain classes and groups of people based on their criminal, credit and housing history.  While past behavior can be a good predictor of future behavior, it doesn’t allow for life circumstances or give someone a second chance to behave differently in the future.  I believe that the opportunity to get a second chance should be a cornerstone in the philosophy of all affordable housing developers and managers.  We use public dollars to serve people with low incomes, and people who for one reason or another face challenges in securing stable housing, because of a disability, a history of homelessness, or simply a history of poor decisions.

Let me offer a few examples of where I don’t think fair housing is fair.  Many affordable housing managers have a list of criminal issues that will screen out various types of felony offenses for a year, or five years, or ten years, or for life.  These are persons who have done their time and, in many cases, their probation or parole.  Nonetheless, they must continue to “serve time” by being barred from housing opportunities.  Police department crime prevention units exacerbate the problem by encouraging landlords to bar former criminals from their rental property.

Let’s say you are someone with a history, ready to turn your life in the right direction. If you are lucky enough to make it past the criminal background check, a landlord will most  likely  review your credit and housing history.  If you’ve been poor, you’ve probably not paid credit cards timely and likely had to give up an apartment because you couldn’t keep up with the rent.  Most recently, we’ve seen tenants facing a Catch-22 situation. Potential landlords insist that an applicant pay off a previous landlord for rent delinquencies before they will rent to them.   I am sympathetic to some extent; we all want to rent to people that will pay rent on time.  But we also know that there are myriad processes, both informal and legal, that a landlord can use to terminate the lease of a tenant delinquent on rent.  It should be within the scope of our mission to give someone a second chance, because it is possible to get them to voluntarily or legally move if they don’t.

Public resources to build affordable housing are scarce.  Competition to be awarded them is fierce.  I think most public funders want to prioritize the most needy.  Yet, best practices of property management, including  exclusionary tenant screening done in the name of fair housing, encourages just the opposite – excluding the most needy in favor of the least problematic.

Alliance Housing relies on relational property management and has almost no tenant screening criteria.  We take referrals from homeless shelters and other social service providers.  We house those other landlords screen out.  We know our tenants by name, know the ups and downs of their life, and work with them to keep them stably housed.  Our mantra, coined by our former Director, Herb Frey, is, “We’ll house you as long as you pay your rent (mostly on time) and behave yourself.”  We believe this is our mission.  If more landlords lived our mission, it would make many more housing units available without spending the money to build another unit.

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