For Immediate Release
Alexis Squire, Equal Rights Center, 202-370-3209


Washington, DC- On October 18 at 9:00am EST, the Equal Rights Center (ERC) released Unlocking Discrimination: A DC Area Testing Investigation About Racial Discrimination and Criminal Records Screening Policies in Housing. The investigation that formed the basis of the report utilized a civil rights testing methodology, commonly referred to as mystery shopping. Over the course of several months, the ERC instructed African American and white female testers posing as having similar criminal records to interact with local housing providers and express interest in renting an apartment. The testers reported back about their experiences and the ERC compared whether testers were treated differently on the basis of race. In total, 47% of tests conducted revealed differential treatment on the part of a housing provider that favored the white female tester.

In April 2016, HUD’s Office of General Counsel issued guidance on the application of Fair Housing Act standards to the use of criminal records by housing providers. Though the Fair Housing Act does not explicitly provide protection to individuals because they have a criminal record, the HUD guidance states that criminal history-based restrictions on housing opportunities could violate the Fair Housing Act if they burden one protected group over another. Nationally, African Americans and Hispanics are arrested, convicted and incarcerated at rates disproportionate to their share of the general population. In the greater Washington, DC area, the same is true for African Americans. Through testing conducted for the Unlocking Discrimination project, the ERC was able to gather information about certain criminal records screening policies and procedures local housing providers have in place. In total, nearly a third of tests conducted revealed a criminal records screening policy in place that may have an illegal disparate impact on the basis of race.

The ERC tested sixty housing providers throughout Washington, DC and Northern Virginia as part of the investigation. All tests used female testers, along with assigned criminal history profiles that reflected many women’s actual experiences with the criminal legal system. While men outnumber women in prison, the number of women in prison has grown at a significantly quicker rate than the overall number of incarcerated men in the last three decades. African American women are imprisoned at more than twice the rate of white women. Prior to their involvement with the criminal legal system, women experience an extremely high rate of trauma due to interpersonal violence, childhood physical and sexual abuse, mental illness, and poverty, among other factors.

“Civil rights testing makes it possible for the ERC to uncover discrimination that is difficult to see, and we decided to use it to shine a light on housing discrimination that African American women with criminal records in our community experience,” stated ERC Executive Director Melvina Ford. “Testing results show that criminal records screening policies and practices are serving as proxies for racial discrimination in housing” she added.

The most common type of differential treatment revealed through testing occurred when agents provided different information about criminal records screening policies to African American and white testers that were otherwise matched. For example, one agent at an apartment complex in DC told the African American tester that anyone with a felony on her or his record would be declined. The same agent told the white tester that a third party conducted the background check and made a decision on behalf of the property, and that it really depended on the type of crime and how long ago it had occurred.

As part of the report, the ERC issued a series of recommendations ranging from increased investment in fair housing initiatives to the adoption of additional local protections that limit the extent to which housing providers can use criminal records screening to deny housing opportunities.

“Housing providers must immediately cease engaging in illegal housing discrimination on the basis of race, whether it is intentional or unintentional,” stated Melvina Ford. “In addition, millions of Americans now have some sort of criminal record and we all must work to ensure that having a record does not mean a lifetime automatic ban from equal housing opportunity.

The Unlocking Discrimination report is available here.


About the Equal Rights Center (
Originally formed in 1983, the Equal Rights Center (ERC) is a national non-profit civil rights organization based in Washington, D.C. With members located in every state and the District of Columbia, the ERC works nationally to promote equal opportunity in housing, employment, disability rights, immigrant rights, and access to public accommodations and government services for all protected classes under federal, state, and local laws.

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