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.

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Anonymous

My heart bleeds for you.

Tami

I'm not black , I'm white and I've been victim to this downward cycle of eviction discrimination. I am ,as we speak, feeling the hardships that follow eviction and unfairness. I can not find 1 place that will rent to me and I was evicted by a greedy landlord who took my 8800 dollars after 3 months. Even though I filed a discrimination complaint with HUD, I'm definitely on this blacklist. I need help and there is No where to get any. I'm doomed to homelessness right now with no hope to get ahead and for sure no American dream.

Mike Dubay

What about legitimate landlords who are saved thousand & thousands of dollars not to mention damage losses & headaches by correctly utilizing eviction records? I wonder if the benefit far out ways those few that are hurt or inconvenienced by the so called "Blacklists" the left always mentions. The left and of course money hungry lawyers always try to portray the small minority as the large majority!

Ruben Pagan

The blacklist problem is real. While there are certainly tenants who damage a landlord's property or otherwise cause a nuisance, there are an equal number of landlords who abuse and take advantage of the system. The way the law works today, many tenants legitimately have to chose between their alleged rights as a tenant and having a decent chance at finding future housing. It's particularly bad in cities like Seattle where rising rental costs are pushing out low income tenants.

Also, when you hear a lawyer talking about these issues, I wouldn't assume they're just a partisan "money hungry lawyer". The low income tenants who are getting squeezed by these laws can't pay for legal services. Speaking from personal experience, the lawyers who represent them are often doing it on a pro bono basis.

If the laws were more fair, the record of any eviction proceeding in which the tenant prevailed would be automatically sealed. That wouldn't stop individual landlords from checking the court records, but it would at least prevent the companies that complete tenancy-related background checks from using such records. Some tenants can afford to pay to have their records sealed, but again, it's the most vulnerable tenants who are being harmed the most.

Leigh

Tenant blacklist in NYC is notorious problem, and the attorney I had to hire to protect me, Jamie Fishman, Esq., is an enthusiastic crusader against it.

A (tough!) white woman, I used to live in an unimproved, Rent Regulated apartment, and I fought my landlord's frivolous lawsuits for nearly 20 years. He tried mercilessly to intimidate me into giving up my home so he could do a few token renovations, illegally de-regulate it, and triple the rent. In fact, he had spent time in State prison in the 1980s for tenant harassment!

But he didn't file an actual eviction suit until I developed a chronic illness and was bedridden, trying to recover. And then, my fiance died. LL reverted to his 1980s strategy, granting 2 of my (nutty) neighbors rent-abatements to harass me (thankfully, in contrast, others in the building were very supportive in a difficult time).

I had the sense that if there had been a man in my life even merely to suggest a male presence, neither the LL nor my 2 nutty neighbors would have been targeting me as they did. It saddened me greatly to realize that there are predatory people in this world, who appear to be normal citizens and yet who eagerly attack their weakened fellows rather than lend support--like sharks who smell blood. I've found it very difficult to assimilate this discovery about the less humane aspects of human nature. I see examples all over the news from all over the world--but here at home, in my own life? Yikes.

Point being, I would like to see the eviction statistics as regards single women, and as regards chronically ill, disabled, handicapped, and elderly. I tried 9-ways-til Sunday to find assistance geared to disabled New Yorkers and there was NOTHING. I was incredulous--called the Mayor's (Bloomberg) Office for the Disabled and a retiree answered the line, and turns out, he was the entire staff of the office! WHAT?! In NYC, better have a big bank account!

Danny Lampley

Not well-versed in the area of the law pertaining to fair credit reporting, but a previous comment brings to mind a question: is it possible that these databases without time limit really do fall under a definition of the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act and are like credit reports and should be time-limited so that the FCRA can be used to temper the problem?

Jan C

The information the landlord is accessing are court records which are public. The credit reporting agencies will remove negative information after 7 years but court records stay until they are legally ordered sealed or expunged. The landlord can see the disposition on the case so they know if it was dismissed. Also, in that instance, it would not show as an eviction on a credit history . However slow or non payment may still appear.

Anonymous

They're not accessing the court records themselves directly. They're accessing a database compiled by someone else or sending potential tenant info to a company that has compiled the data. There's a big difference between the two. The eviction wouldn't show up on a credit report, but the judgment would and potentially the debt owed to the landlord could depending on how it's reported.

Anonymous

Years ago, here in Hawaii, I convinced my state representative to introduce legislation that would hold tenant screening companies to the same standards and rules as credit reporting agencies. It made it through 2 committees but failed in the third. This is something that needs to be done on a national level but I won't hold my breath waiting for the current Congress and Lord Dampnut to do something about it.

Jan C

They absolutely should follow the same standards. If a person hasn't had an eviction in seven years, there's little reason to blacklist them. Does anyone monitor or regulate how these agencies operate? Is there any licensing required? Because what they're doing is seriously affecting peoples lives.

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