Black women with criminal records are more likely to experience discrimination in the Washington, D.C. housing market than white women of comparable criminal backgrounds, according to a new report released Oct. 18 by the Equal Rights Center.
The ERC, a nonprofit civil rights organization, identified these findings as possible violations of the Fair Housing Act, which protects buyers or renters in a protected class, including race, color and national origin, from housing discrimination.
Though individuals with criminal records are not a protected class under the Fair Housing Act, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a directive in April that declared blanket policies of refusing to rent to anybody with a criminal record as de facto discrimination. However, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s general counsel, turning down an individual tenant due to a criminal record can still be legally justifiable.
The ERC found differential treatment favoring white over black testers in 47 percent of trials, which paired black and white women in 60 tests in which they were assigned similar criminal profiles and instructed to pose as a single woman searching for a one-bedroom or studio apartment for herself.
In 22 of the 47 tests that were able to provide conclusive results, white women received favorable differential treatment after disclosing their criminal backgrounds. Differential treatment was categorized in three ways: disparity in information or quality of service, differences in housing agents’ reactions toward testers’ disclosed criminal records and speculation from agents on the impact a testers’ criminal record would have on the success of her housing application.
ERC Director of Fair Housing Kate Scott, who spearheaded the research project, said the different attitudes black female women encountered greatly impacted their housing search.
“I think the difference in information about what policies are is a really big problem,” Scott said in an interview with The Hoya. “In many of those tests, one person would have walked away thinking ‘I have a chance. I’m not sure that I’ll have a successful application here, but I have a chance’ and the other tester would have walked away thinking, ‘There’s absolutely no chance. I won’t be able to rent here, so why would I even try?’”
Scott credits “Evicted,” an ethnography by Matthew Desmond discussing low-income housing in Milwaukee, as an inspiration for the report after it drew her attention to the often-overlooked plight of black female convicts.
“There were several goals at play, but I think one of the most important ones was to add a more nuanced look of what was happening that focused on gendered experiences of both the criminal-legal system and housing discrimination,” Scott said.
According to the ERC report, although there are more men in prison than women, the rate of growth for female imprisonment has outpaced the growth for male imprisonment by more than 50 percent between 1980 and 2014. Black women are imprisoned at more than twice the rate of white women.
Taylar Nuevelle, who did not wish to disclose the nature of her conviction, said the report captured the discrimination she experienced in her housing after being incarcerated.
“It actually brought tears to my eyes because it’s very difficult when you feel like you’re living in a vacuum and no one is experiencing what you’re experiencing,” Nuevelle said. “I could not have asked for a more comprehensive and validating piece. It was as if they had modeled the entire thing after me, and they knew nothing about me when they did this report.”
Nuevelle said the anecdotes included in the report helped humanize black female convicts in a way statistics could not.
“You can look at statistics and you can not feel, but this is real, tangible evidence that you can’t deny,” Nuevelle said. “You can’t dismiss it, and you can’t just relegate it; it’s tangible. You can’t just disassociate yourself from it.”
Scott said the study is limited in that it was not tested on subsidized housing, the most popular form of housing convicts pursue, because of its long waitlists. However, Scott said nevertheless the policy recommendations included at the end of the report for housing providers, local government and the Department of Housing and Urban Development were still valid for combatting housing discrimination.
The report recommended revising the role that criminal records and screening practices play in their screening processes and providing greater transparency about what screening criteria are for housing applications.
Ibilola Owoyele (SFS ’17), secretary of civil rights advocacy in the GUSA Federal and D.C. Relations Committee, said Georgetown students should take interest in the findings of the report.
“The report mentioned that one out of three Americans has some sort of criminal history. When you look at Georgetown students, someone is going to be affected by that number,” Owoyele said. “I think as people within D.C., it’s within our right and obligation to examine what role we can play in mitigating that number — first the high number of people who are criminalized, but also, once these people leave, what kind of rehabilitative justice we can do.”
Director of the GUSA Federal and D.C. Relations Committee Kotryna Jukneviciute (COL ’18) said the report was significant for promoting dialogue about housing discrimination. The ERC suggests D.C. residents concerned by the findings of the investigation should consider serving as a tester for the ERC.
“Some people, after reading it, will hopefully feel inspired to do something,” Jukneviciute said. “That’s what I think is the beauty of reports like this, is that it gives students the opportunity to ignite a fire inside of them and then hopefully go out and do something about it.”