Unfair Eviction Screening Policies Are Disproportionately Blacklisting Black Women

Five years ago, Nikita Smith’s landlord filed an eviction case against her. They worked it out, and Ms. Smith was never evicted. Little did she know that years later, the eviction filing would continue to haunt her. When she applied for another apartment in Renton, Washington, just outside Seattle, the property’s management company shut her out from the chance to move into a new home.

Across the country, landlords routinely use screening policies that deny housing whenever an applicant was named in an eviction case — even when a court never ordered the eviction. These unfair policies punish families based on a prior landlord’s decision to file a case, ignoring the reasons for filing, the outcome of the case, or the family’s circumstances. Applicants are often asked whether they were ever involved in an eviction case, and tenant screening companies provide court data to landlords, creating tenant blacklists. Even if the eviction case was dismissed, filed many years ago, or based on unlawful reasons, people’s housing options disappear.

For example, A.R.’s landlord tried to kick her out when her ex-boyfriend came to her home, threatened her, and threw a rock through her window. Because evictions based on domestic violence are illegal, she got the case thrown out. But seven years later, she still can’t get housing because of the black mark on her record.

If we want the American Dream to be more than just that — a dream — then we need to reform the way eviction screenings are done in this country.

These policies give landlords a powerful weapon. Landlords can threaten eviction when tenants protest the failure to make repairs or for reasons that violate the law. When the mere filing of an eviction case means that a family’s future housing applications will be rejected, many tenants will avoid a case at all costs. They will move out, tolerate unsafe living conditions, or decline to exercise their rights, allowing landlords to act with impunity.

While these unjust screening policies affect all tenants, Black women are most likely to be blacklisted. In King County, Washington, where Ms. Smith lives, our research shows that African-American tenants are nearly four times more likely to have an eviction case filed against them compared to white tenants. The disparity is even starker for African-American women: They are more than five times as likely to have a filing against them compared to households headed by white men.

Women of color bear the burden of eviction in other communities as well. In Milwaukee, women renters from Black neighborhoods faced eviction more than 1.8 times as often as male renters from the same neighborhoods and more than five times as often as women renters from white neighborhoods. Other studies demonstrated that people of color made up about 80 percent of those facing eviction in several cities, and women were 62 percent of the tenants facing eviction in Chicago and 70 percent of the tenants in Philadelphia.

While mass incarceration continues to remove African-American men from their communities, eviction screenings prevent African-American women from entering many neighborhoods, reproducing economic and social inequality for communities of color. As Harvard professor Matthew Desmond has observed, “Poor black men are locked up while poor black women are locked out.”

Today, the ACLU, ACLU of Washington, Northwest Justice Project, and Virginia Poverty Law Center filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Ms. Smith. The complaint alleges that the management company violated the Fair Housing Act when it refused to consider her application because its blanket screening policy disproportionately harms African-Americans, particularly African-American women. As far as we know, it is the first case challenging an eviction screening policy under civil rights law. It is also the first under the Fair Housing Act that focuses on intersectional race and sex housing discrimination, highlighting how African-American women are especially impacted by the use of these blanket screening policies.

It’s understandable that landlords want to screen applicants for past problems in their tenancies. But rather than flatly rejecting everyone who ever had a case filed against them, landlords should give applicants the chance to explain their individual circumstances and why they would be good tenants.

Almost three million people are estimated to face eviction annually. With these screening policies in place, millions more are shut out of housing possibilities for years to come. Eviction screening policies not only bar people from new housing, but also seriously constrain their access to better jobs, schools, healthcare, and transportation, all of which are tied to one’s home.

Ending unfair eviction screenings would open the doors of opportunity for families to many communities that are currently closed to them. If we want the American Dream to be more than just that — a dream — then we need to reform the way eviction screenings are done in this country.

Add a comment (28)
Read the Terms of Use

Mary

Thank you for doing this work - it's so meaningful to have people working to fight against unfair practices, especially when they end up targeting and impacting already targeted communities. Thank you thank you thank you.

Landlord

Have any studies been done to determine what races cause the most damage to properties they rent? Or is the issue one of race alone? Do black people damage property more than whites or others.

What if blacks did do more damage to property and therefore landlords are reluctant to let to them? Probably not. However, I do believe the poorer you are, the less likely you are to keep up your property. Poverty creates blight, not the black or minority. They are just victims of the poverty, but don't blame the landlord for knowing this.

Anonymous

This title and stance of this article seems to make it that they are targeted for eviction proceedings, which would in itself be a fair housing violation, but they aren't. The demographic is effected more so because of socioeconomic issues at her than being victims of an eveiction process. A process that I will add, one a writ is filed on a tenant, regardless if it follows through with an actual eviction will be on the tenants record unless the landlord has the writ dismissed, which they should since they didn't follow through. She cools also contact the attorney that handles the writ filing on behalf of the attorney to request it be dismissed from her record.

Perry Redd

I an ideal world, if a landlord elects not to "follow through" on the eviction, stopping the writ would be a surefire means to fairness under the law; unfortunately, in most jurisdictions, when the writ is filed (asked for), it's a done deal for a tenant. "The System" doesn't know (isn't calibrated) to excise a writ once filed. Although it should be removed, the "black mark" stays on one's record and cannot be removed--and the tenant is none the wiser. This phenomena is akin to "arrests not charged" that bear negatively down the road on previously convicted persons seeking housing and employment.

Anonymous

As a landlord (liberal democrat), I only want to remind that it's not uncostly to start an eviction process. The lanlord, I assume was OK initially renting to these black woman, but would later either not receive rent or see damage the tenant is doing to the unit.
The only recourse a landlord has for remedy is to take the tenant to court. Even if the case is won by the landlord, the landlord will not receive the back rent or repair work needed back from the tenant. The tenant leaves and is free to go without ever paying or fixing.
The landlord has little tools to use and is blamed, as in this scenario your article describes, by mitigating their risk of renting to an unknown tenant who has been to court involved in an eviction case.
Nicole
Lanlord since 2004 to 16 units

Anonymous

The problem cited in this article, though, is with landlords who file eviction papers and then never follow through, so the eviction is never tested in court. However, these records remain, and future landlords bar the tenant from renting on the basis of this filing. This opens up tenants to the abuses described in the article.

Anonymous

This suit does not appear to be targeted toward landlords who file eviction actions that are later resolved amicably and/or dismissed. Rather, the target is future landlords who deny renting to that same tenant based upon black mark that should not continue to haunt her.

Anonymous

The article points out that the landlord did take Ms. Smith to Court, and got a judgment for eviction. Later they settled the case and continued her tenancy.

Anonymous

We need your help in New Orleans, LA. The tenant/landlord laws are ridiculously oppressive and unbelievably unjust for the tenants. Repairs are always on a backburner here. What can we do to change this? Help Louisiana out of the dark ages! S.O.S

Anonymous

Call your state representatives again, and again, and again. Tell your friends and family to do the same. Oppressive laws need to be changed through the legislative process.

Pages

Sign Up for Breaking News