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Applicants With Criminal Record Not Welcome At Some Rentals And Advocates Say It’s Discrimination

Christopher Rashad Green
Christopher Rashad Green says he had trouble getting approved for a rental because of his criminal record -- despite having two jobs. (Photo: Whittney Evans/VPM)

*VPM News intern Reed Canaan reported this story.

Many landlords refuse to rent to people with a criminal record. Fair housing advocates in Virginia are challenging the legality of these policies, saying they disproportionately impact people of color.

Christopher Rashad Green moved into a two-bedroom apartment in June. He’s decorated the walls with paintings and is growing basil and jade plants. 

Finding this apartment wasn’t easy. Green has a criminal record, and when he was released from prison in 2013, he struggled to find stable housing. Green was making progress to improve his life. He says he was working two jobs, had his voting rights restored and even had a reference from the mayor. But at one apartment complex, that wasn’t enough. 

Initially, the landlord told Green they should have an apartment available. Later the landlord emailed him to say that based on his criminal record, they wouldn’t rent to him.

Green was rejected several more times. 

Fair housing advocates say many local landlords have “blanket bans” on tenants with criminal records. Heather Crislip is President and CEO of Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, or HOME. She estimates that 4 out of 5 major landlords in the Richmond metro area won’t accept anyone with a criminal background. 

“You know it didn't really seem to matter how long ago the offense was or how minor the offense was," she said. "Once you had a little bit of a stain on your record it made it very difficult to rent in the commonwealth.”

While these bans are common, fair housing advocates say they may not be legal. HOME recently joined the ACLU of Virginia in a lawsuit against Sterling Glen Apartments in Chesterfield County. They alleged that its blanket ban on people with criminal records violated the Federal Fair Housing Act because it disproportionately impacted black people who have higher arrest and incarceration rates. 

“You are virtually cutting off an entire segment of the population, predominantly people of color, from having access to things like stable housing,” said Eden Heilman, an attorney with the ACLU of Virginia who worked on the lawsuit.

In Chesterfield, black people are almost three times more likely than white people to have a criminal record, according to the complaint.

The Sterling Glen case was settled out of court. The property manager worked with HOME and the ACLU to develop a new rental policy that includes an individualized assessment of applicants. 

Heilman said Sterling Glen’s new policy is a model for the industry. “And we hope that all housing providers in Virginia and across the country who are not currently conducting individualized assessments may be able to take a look at this policy and adopt it for their own use and benefit,” she said.

Sterling Glen did not respond to VPM’s requests for an interview, but told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in June, “It’s always been our policy and intent to comply with all fair housing laws.”

While leaders in the rental industry acknowledge the problem with bans on those with criminal records, they don’t see individualized assessments as a solution. 

“So anyone that shows up with a criminal history, you now have to make a completely subjective decision as opposed to a true data-based decision that can be applied equally,” said Patrick McCloud, CEO of the Virginia Apartment Management Association.

He said landlords don’t have enough guidance on how to conduct individualized assessments.

“It means you look at a bunch of information, take it, and make your best guess on who’s a risk and who’s not. I wish I could tell you there’s a better approach to it than that, but that’s exactly what an individualized assessment is...a best guess,” he said.  

Eden Heilman of the ACLU said individualized assessments have been considered best practice for several years.

Christopher Green moved on to find a landlord who understood his situation.  He’s proud to be renting this apartment.

“Thirty-six years. It’s been 36 years since I had an apartment in my name,” he said.

Looking forward, he’s considering homeownership. His advice for others looking for housing: ask for help, you don’t have to do it alone.

VPM News is the staff byline for articles and podcasts written and produced by multiple reporters and editors.
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