Despite its history as Chocolate City, the District sees housing discrimination based on race, even when black and white residents have similar criminal records, according to an analysis released today by the Equal Rights Center, a D.C.-based nonprofit.
Over the summer, ERC performed 60 phone and in-person tests, with 45 in the District and 15 in Northern Virginia, to determine whether area housing providers treat potential tenants differently because of their race. The study controlled for sex by requiring that all testers were women—a group that has seen an accelerated incarceration rate in recent years, the nonprofit notes. The sites were selected based on their location, price, and size, including some in all eight wards and “large multifamily properties.” In essence, one white woman and one black woman of similar age tested a given landlord (or their agent) as a pair in searching for a studio or one-bedroom apartment. The women disclosed that they had either a “college-age felony arrest for drug possession from at least seven years ago” or a “larceny conviction from at least 11 years ago that was related to a long-term abusive relationship”—neither considered “directly related to a tester’s ability to be a good tenant” or indicative that they would risk tenants’ safety.
The study found that nearly half (47 percent) of the tests showed that landlords favored the white female potential tenant. Additionally, 28 percent of the tests “revealed a criminal records screening policy in place that may have an illegal disparate impact on the basis of race” under the federal Fair Housing Act. ERC explains that possibly discriminatory treatment fell into one of three categories: a landlord gave different information or quality of service to the testing pair; the landlord “reacted differently” when a tester disclosed their criminal past; or the landlord speculated about whether a tester’s criminal record would affect their housing application.
In one example, a District housing provider told a black applicant that “anyone with a felony on her or his record would be declined,” while telling a white applicant that a “third-party conducted a background check and made a decision on behalf of the property,” depending on the crime and when it was committed, the nonprofit says. ERC calculates that more than 4,600 housing units in the greater D.C. region would be unavailable to tenants with “any felony conviction from any point in time, and to many individuals with a misdemeanor conviction,” therefore unfairly harming people of color.
“Testing results show that criminal records screening polices and practices are serving as proxies for racial discrimination in housing,” ERC Executive Director Melvina Ford says in a statement. “Housing providers must immediately cease engaging in illegal housing discrimination on the basis of race, whether it is intentional or unintentional.” ERC recommends that D.C. enacts more laws to ensure those with criminal records can find housing. One such bill, proposed by Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie in April, would limit the conditions under which landlords could consider them.
The full report can be read here. Maps depicting ERC’s methodology follow below.