NYC Case a ‘Warning Shot’ in Struggle to End Housing Bias Against Ex-Inmates

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It took five years of effort in federal court, but my organization, The Fortune Society just won a precedent-setting settlement of a landmark civil rights case that shows how advocacy groups can bring lawsuits against private landlords who impose blanket bans on renting apartments to people with criminal records.

Fortune is a not-for-profit community-based organization that supports successful community reentry, including job-training and placement services for formerly incarcerated persons. Our federal litigation demonstrates that blanket bans are a violation of the Fair Housing Act, because such bans disproportionately and overwhelmingly impact African-Americans and Hispanics.

The pre-trial settlement includes a record-setting $1.187 million payment by the accused landlord, establishing a powerful deterrent effect against landlords who deny housing to otherwise-qualified African Americans and Hispanics.

Our lawsuit is one of the first in the nation to challenge a blanket criminal records housing ban by a private landlord as a civil rights violation. The settlement fires a warning shot across the bow of any landlord in America with such a blanket ban policy.

The legal action we brought against Sandcastle Towers Housing Development Fund Corp. (HDFC); Sarasota Gold LLC (Sarasota Gold); and Weissman Reality Group LLC (Weissman) was handled by John Relman, founder of Relman, Dane & Colfax, a civil rights law firm headquartered in Washington, D.C.

The suit focused on “The Sand Castle,” a 917-unit apartment complex located in the Far Rockaway section of Queens.

In the case, we presented extensive evidence that the landlord maintained a policy of automatically excluding any person with a record of a criminal conviction from renting or living in an apartment regardless of the nature of the conviction, the amount of time that has lapsed since the conviction, evidence of rehabilitation, or any other factor related to whether a specific person poses any threat to safety.

‘Blanket’ Housing Bans Increasing in Internet Era

This type of blanket ban policy has become increasingly common in housing due to the increased availability of inexpensive and immediate background checks via the internet.

We entered this litigation with the goal of establishing legal precedent under the Fair Housing Act by challenging blanket bans imposed by private landlords on persons with criminal records.

This past summer, a summary judgment decision recognized our right to sue under a disparate impact theory, establishing an important new legal precedent that Fortune and peer organizations can rely on in the future to bring lawsuits against landlords who exclude persons with records.

The decision affirmed that Fortune had the right to proceed to trial under a Fair Housing Act “disparate impact” claim (disproportionately and overwhelmingly having impact on a minority group), and set out a road map for proving such a claim based on the evidence gathered in the case by Fortune against the defendants.

This road map, or template, shows how to use statistics to establish and prove a disparate impact case challenging a blanket ban. It will aid advocates and plaintiffs across the U.S.

Deterrent Effect

The settlement— in which the defendants also warrant that they no longer own or manage rental real estate and claim no wrongdoing—is one of the largest, if not the largest, ever obtained in a case challenging a blanket ban in housing for persons with records.

It involved just a single apartment building in the New York City borough of Queens, but it has the capacity to be a wake-up call to landlords across the nation. The case has been closely followed by advocates and the real estate industry around the country. Landlords will take notice of its deterrent effect.

Many will look more closely at whether they have policies that comport with the law, and they will be concerned about the exposure for costly litigation.

The size of the settlement and the fact that both it and the Court’s decision are public will now give Fortune a powerful tool to use in future discussions with landlords who express reluctance to provide housing to our clients.

Bans on housing and employment for those re-entering society from prison fall disproportionately and overwhelmingly on African-American and Hispanic men.

When housing providers deny those who have been formerly incarcerated basic rights, they are creating a racial and ethnic caste system. In effect, they are imposing harsh limitations on where these individuals and their families can live and work.

JoAnne Page

JoAnne Page, CEO, Fortune Society

This serves only to perpetuate poverty and segregation, and it dramatically decreases the likelihood of successful reentry.

JoAnne Page is President and CEO of The Fortune Society. Based in New York City, Fortune serves approximately 7,000 clients a year, providing comprehensive services including housing, education, employment, health, and case management programs, among others. Approximately 90 percent of Fortune clients are African-American or Latino.

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