FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
August 2, 2023
Equal Rights Center & WC Smith Reach Agreement to Address Fair Housing Concerns Related to Criminal Records Screening in Washington, DC
Today, the Equal Rights Center (ERC) and WC Smith announced they have entered into a cooperation agreement in which WC Smith will proactively address fair housing concerns raised by the ERC following a civil rights testing investigation regarding criminal record screening practices at WC Smith properties in the District.
In response the ERC’s outreach, WC Smith quickly expressed an interest in working with the ERC to ensure compliance with fair housing requirements and best practices in Washington, DC, and to serve as a model for other housing providers seeking to comply with the District’s laws regarding fair housing and criminal record screenings. As a result of today’s agreement, WC Smith will:
- Affirm its non-discrimination policy and distribute a statement about the policy to all relevant employees;
- Complete fair housing training for its leasing agents and property management staff, with a focus on criminal record screenings;
- Provide guidance from the DC Office of Human Rights on The Fair Criminal Record Screening in Housing Act of 2016 to its leasing agents and property management staff; and,
- Hire the ERC to conduct compliance tests over the course of the agreement to evaluate compliance with fair housing requirements related to criminal record screenings at its DC properties.
Guidance from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) details the potential discriminatory impact that overly broad criminal record screenings can have towards people of color, which can constitute race or national origin discrimination. As such, HUD guidance makes clear that arrest records cannot be considered when a provider conducts a criminal record screening and that a total ban on felonies or convictions would be illegal. Additionally, a housing provider should conduct an individualized assessment of an individual’s criminal record, considering such factors as the type of crime, how long ago the crime occurred, and changes in a person’s circumstances since that time.
Under The Fair Criminal Record Screening for Housing Act of 2016, the District has additional requirements for criminal record screenings in housing. Housing providers must notify applicants in writing of all the eligibility criteria that will be considered when screening their applications. Housing providers should only conduct a criminal record screening after making a conditional offer of tenancy to an applicant. During the criminal record screening, housing providers should only review pending criminal accusations or specific convictions listed in the law that have occurred within the past 7 years.
The ERC alleges that during a testing investigation several WC Smith properties were unable to provide information regarding the lookback time frame for the applicant’s criminal record or the possibility of an individualized assessment of an applicant’s criminal record. WC Smith does not agree with ERC’s allegations but, as part of the cooperation agreement, agreed to work with ERC to strengthen WC Smith’s criminal record screening policies. ERC, as part of the cooperation agreement, has waived and released any claims against WC Smith relating to the allegations.
ERC’s Executive Director Kate Scott remarks, “Everyone needs a safe place to live that meets their needs. Too often, through overly broad criminal records screening policies, landlords replicate the racial disparities of the criminal legal system in housing. It’s critically important that District landlords have clear, fair, evidence based criminal record screening policies in place so that everyone has a fair chance to find a home. We’re thrilled that WC Smith has worked with us to make sure this is the case at their properties and we encourage other local landlords to do the same.”
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.