Equal Rights Center Files Lawsuit against National Housing Provider Alleging Illegal Race and National Origin Discrimination

For media inquiries, contact: Kate Scott, ERC Deputy Director, kscott@equalrightscenter.org, or Gregg Kelley, WLC Director of Development and Communications, gregg_kelley@washlaw.org

Washington, D.C. – December 12, 2017 – Today, The Equal Rights Center (“ERC”), a civil rights organization that identifies and seeks to eliminate unlawful and unfair discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations in its home community of Greater Washington, D.C. and nationwide, filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia against Mid-America Apartment Communities, Inc., and Mid- America Apartments, L. P. collectively, (“MAA”). The complaint alleges that MAA maintained and enforced a criminal records screening policy that categorically barred an untold number of individuals with criminal records from living at their properties in violation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 (FHA).

African American and Latino housing applicants to MAA properties were between two and twelve times as likely to be prevented from applying for an apartment due to MAA’s criminal records screening policy. The lawsuit claims that MAA’s criminal records screening policy had an illegal and disproportionate effect on African American and Latino applicants without a substantial, legitimate business justification and therefore violates the federal fair housing law.

The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and Relman, Dane & Colfax, PLLC are representing the ERC in the matter. Through the complaint, the ERC seeks injunctive, monetary, and declarative relief.

The complaint alleges that MAA enforced its discriminatory criminal records screening policy at more than 55 apartment communities in 15 cities around the country. An ERC investigation revealed that applicants who disclose a felony conviction through the MAA online application portal were not even able to submit an application for review because a felony conviction worked as an absolute bar to applying for an apartment.

Blanket bans that automatically deny housing to people with criminal records without regard for factors like the nature of the crime or its severity, the time passed since the crime, or demonstrated rehabilitation can be discriminatory under the Fair Housing Act.  They are also inconsistent with guidance issued by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

“Blanket bans from housing based on a criminal record without consideration of its relevance, including how long ago the incident occurred, the nature of the charge or even an applicant’s more recent stable rental history, are inconsistent with America’s fundamental values of redemption and fairness,” said ERC Executive Director Melvina Ford.  “The impact of these bans on people of color, who have long been subject to unfair, mass incarceration, cannot be overstated.  We want MAA and all housing providers to do the right thing and adopt housing policies that ensure that people with criminal records are evaluated fairly.”

Image of Post Properties application page: Application form asks, "Have you or any other applicant or occupant ever been convicted of a felony?" Response options are yes or no. Next to the form question on felony convictions is a red "i" button. Hovering over the button yields a dialog box that states, "We are unable to lease to anyone who has been convicted of a felony. Should you have any questions, please contact the leasing office for this community."

Instead of automatic bans based on criminal records, MAA and other housing providers should conduct an individualized assessment of potential residents with a criminal history that considers factors relevant to the prospective tenant’s qualifications to reduce unlawful discrimination.

As part of a larger investigation into criminal records screening and fair housing, the ERC encountered the policies and practices of Post Massachusetts Avenue, a property now owned and managed by MAA.  The property’s stated criminal records policy—a blanket ban targeting not only convictions but also criminal charges—was so egregious that the ERC launched a deeper investigation into the company’s practices. Through its investigation, the ERC discovered that an individual who acknowledged a felony conviction was not permitted to complete the online application on the company’s website. Further, the investigation revealed online statements indicating that Post automatically excluded applicants with any felony conviction or pending charge, along with applicants who have one of a number of undisclosed misdemeanor convictions or pending misdemeanor charges. MAA acquired Post Properties for approximately $4 billion in December 2016 and in doing so became liable for Post’s ongoing FHA violations.

Executive Director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs Jonathan Smith states “Indiscriminately banning persons who have been convicted of a crime from housing perpetuates the racial discrimination that is part of our criminal legal system, serves no business or public safety purpose and is unfair and unjust. Our Fair Housing laws protect against this type of discrimination.”

John Relman of Relman, Dane & Colfax, PLLC comments “MAA’s illegal policy shuts the door on applicants for housing without giving them a chance to show they are qualified to rent. When a large company with locations in many cities puts a blanket felony ban on its website, it has a chilling effect on countless individuals who conclude it is futile to even try apply.  The discriminatory effect of this policy is clear, widespread, and systemic.”

A copy of the complaint is available here, along with a list of MAA property locations.

Individuals who believe they may have experienced illegal discrimination at a Post or MAA property are encouraged to report their experiences to the ERC by calling 866.719.4372 or emailing info@equalrightscenter.org.


ABOUT THE EQUAL RIGHTS CENTER: The ERC is a civil rights organization that identifies and seeks to eliminate unlawful and unfair discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations in its home community of Greater Washington DC and nationwide. The ERC’s core strategy for identifying unlawful and unfair discrimination is civil rights testing. When the ERC identifies discrimination, it seeks to eliminate it through the use of testing data to educate the public and business community, support policy advocacy, conduct compliance testing and training, and, if necessary, take enforcement action. For more information, please visit www.equalrightscenter.org.

ABOUT THE WASHINGTON LAWYERS’ COMMITTEE: The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs was established in 1968 to provide pro bono legal services to address issues of discrimination and entrenched poverty. Since then, it has successfully handled thousands of civil rights cases on behalf of individuals and groups in the areas of fair housing, equal employment opportunity, public accommodations, immigrant rights, disability rights, public education, and prisoners’ rights. For more information, please visit www.washlaw.org.

ABOUT RELMAN DANE & COLFAX: Relman, Dane & Colfax is one of the largest plaintiff-side fair housing law firms in the country. Based in Washington, D.C., the Relman firm is responsible for significant legal decisions in civil rights cases, including those in Independent Living Center of Southern California v. City of Los Angeles (accessibility of municipal affordable housing program); National Fair Housing Alliance v. Spanos (ensuring accessibility in housing design and construction); United States ex rel. Anti-Discrimination Center v. Westchester County (housing desegregation); Kennedy v. City of Zanesville (access to public services); and Baltimore v. Wells Fargo and Memphis v. Wells Fargo (discriminatory lending).  More information about the firm’s cases is available at www.relmanlaw.com.

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