SAVANNAH, Ga. — The Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department suspended its Crime Free Housing Program, which for 18 years had instructed landlords to refuse to rent apartments to people with criminal histories. The owners of at least 20 large apartment complexes in Savannah participate in the program, making up a significant share of the affordable rentals in the city. The police department made its decision in response to a January 12 letter outlining the program’s violations of federal anti-discrimination law, sent by the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Georgia, Georgia Legal Services Program, and Savannah-Chatham County Fair Housing Council.
“Through its landlord program, Savannah police targeted people with criminal histories for exclusion from housing. Make no mistake. In the United States, where people of color are disproportionately arrested and convicted, a program based on criminal records like Savannah’s is racial discrimination,” said Rachel Goodman, staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program. “We thank the Savannah police for putting a hold on this destructive program, and we look forward to working with them on reform.”
The Savannah police’s program urged landlords to adopt arbitrary and overbroad prohibitions against renting to people with criminal records, without consideration of the type of offense or other factors. Such policies have an unjustified, disproportionate impact on Black and Hispanic people, in violation of the Fair Housing Act.
“Everyone deserves a second chance,” said Sean J. Young, legal director at the ACLU of Georgia. “It is un-American to prevent people who have paid their debts to society from having a place to live”
Approximately 3.8 million people in Georgia have a criminal record. The Savannah police urged landlords to deny housing outright to large categories of people with criminal records, such as anyone with an open warrant, those who had been on probation or parole in the past ten years, anyone with a nonviolent felony conviction from the past ten years, and anyone with a misdemeanor conviction from the past five years.
“We commend the city for its immediate response to our concerns,” said Nancy DeVetter, staff attorney for Georgia Legal Services Program. “We look forward to reaching a collaborative solution that promotes safety and housing for all Savannahians. Individualized evaluations of each potential tenant can address safety while taking the person’s entire story into account.”
“Our housing policy should set parolees and probationers up for success, not doom them to failure,” said Wayne Dawson, executive director of Savannah-Chatham County Fair Housing Council. “A ‘crime free’ housing policy — on its face — seems neutral, but in its application, it may have the effect of perpetuating cycles of recidivism that devastate communities of color without achieving the stated goal of crime elimination.”
The January 12 letter to the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department:
ACLU Racial Justice Program
ACLU of Georgia
Georgia Legal Services Program
Savannah-Chatham County Fair Housing Council