Domestic Violence is a Fair Housing Issue: How Criminal Records Screening Policies Can Harm Survivors of Domestic Violence

By Aastha Uprety, ERC Program Assistant, and Kate Scott, Deputy Director

Today marks the end of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. In reflecting on this topic, it’s important to remember the obstacles to safe and secure housing that domestic violence survivors face. One of these obstacles is overly broad criminal records screening policies that can end up penalizing survivors. This month, the ERC was excited to announce a settlement with the largest private landlord in the country, Mid-America Apartment Communities, Inc. (“MAA”), which we hope will make it easier for survivors of domestic violence to find a safe place to call home.

In 2017, the Equal Rights Center filed suit against MAA over their use of a criminal records screening policy that essentially barred applicants with felony and certain misdemeanor convictions. This policy was up to 12 times more likely to prevent Black and Latino home seekers from applying for an apartment at an MAA property, which the ERC argued had an illegal, racially discriminatory impact under the Fair Housing Act. But discarding overly broad criminal record screening policies could extend a lifeline to various other groups of people who are vulnerable to homelessness, including survivors of domestic violence.

Domestic Violence Survivors Face Criminalization and Difficulty Finding Housing

Social science research shows that a vast portion of women who become involved with the criminal legal system have experienced some type of abuse in their lifetimes. In fact, some studies find that up to 98 percent of incarcerated women may have experienced interpersonal violence or physical/sexual abuse prior to incarceration. The trauma associated with these experiences can lead to social isolation, substance abuse, and other factors increasing the risk of engaging in criminalized behavior.

Domestic violence is not only a risk factor in a woman’s likelihood of becoming involved with the criminal legal system, but it can also be a direct cause. Many women and girls are criminalized for defending themselves against their abusers. For example, in 2016, Bresha Meadows, a 14-year-old girl, was sentenced to juvenile prison for fatally shooting her abusive father. She was released after 10 months, but her story is just one of many from criminalized survivors of domestic violence.

It’s also not uncommon for victims of intimate partner violence to commit crimes as a result of coercion by their abusers or as a method of coping with the symptoms of trauma. The majority of women in prison are charged with non-violent offenses. Over 80 percent of women in jail are charged with property, drug, or public order offenses, which can be a result of domestic abuse.

Overly broad criminal records screening policies have no regard for the context surrounding a person’s criminal conviction or involvement with the criminal legal system. Formerly incarcerated survivors of domestic violence, who are vulnerable to homelessness, are excluded by these policies and thus face difficulty finding housing following their sentence.

Nearly 50 percent of women who are incarcerated were homeless in the month prior to their incarceration. With a criminal record, it becomes even more difficult to escape such a situation. According to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative, formerly incarcerated people are nearly 10 times more likely to be homeless than those who have never been incarcerated. Additionally, formerly incarcerated women are more likely to be homeless than their male counterparts. By preventing formerly incarcerated people from obtaining housing through overly broad criminal records screening policies, housing providers contribute to the homelessness crisis among these individuals, making prisoner reentry even more difficult and leading to higher likelihoods of recidivism.

African American women are incarcerated at over two times the rate of white women. As a consequence of racial disparities in mass incarceration, criminal records screening in housing tends to discriminate against people of color. People of color make up less than 40 percent of the US population, but nearly 70 percent of the prison population, a result of decades of “tough-on-crime” policies and the over-policing of minority communities. With race playing such a significant role in the U.S. criminal legal system, overly broad screening policies in housing do little to protect public safety and discriminate disproportionately on the basis of race.

Individualized Reviews Can Yield Better Housing Outcomes for Domestic Violence Survivors

Our case against MAA was based on the Fair Housing Act, which protects against discrimination on the basis of not only race, but also sex. A 2011 Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) memo addressed the issue of housing discrimination against victims of domestic violence and concluded that such discrimination is almost always equivalent to discrimination against women, which is illegal.

To resolve our lawsuit against them, MAA agreed to adopt a criminal records screening policy that relies on an individualized review of all applicants. Such a review allows housing providers to understand various circumstances that may lead an individual to end up with a conviction on their criminal record, including having experienced domestic violence. MAA is the biggest private housing provider in the country, and we hope that other housing providers follow in their footsteps to implement more inclusive, less discriminatory housing policies.

Women are largely overlooked in conversations about mass incarceration. Between 1980 and 2016, there was a 700 percent increase in the number of female prisoners. Overly broad criminal records screening excludes significant numbers of Americans from finding housing, compounding harm onto formerly incarcerated women of color who are overwhelmingly survivors of domestic violence. Less discriminatory screening policies could allow housing providers to make smarter, more compassionate decisions that allow formerly incarcerated individuals to begin to rebuild their lives.

If you believe you may have experienced discrimination in housing, you can contact the Equal Rights Center. To report your experience, please call 202-234-3062 or email info@equalrightscenter.org.

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