Landlords often refuse to rent homes to people with arrest records— even though an arrest says nothing about guilt (that only comes with a trial) and almost everything to do with discrimination. Since Black and Hispanic Americans are much more likely to be arrested than members of other groups, this trend doubly penalizes them. First, they’re arrested, then have difficulty securing housing forever after. Because of the disproportionate populations of Black and Hispanic Americans with arrest records, The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is looking into the legality of this practice, warning that it may violate the Fair Housing Act.
Since discrimination based on race is illegal, while discrimination based on arrest record is not (yet), landlords can use the coded language of criminal records to legitimize racially biased housing practices. HUD described one method to determine whether a landlord’s stated rejection of people with records is a mask for a deeper bias:
“Intentional discrimination may be proven [if,] when responding to inquiries from prospective applicants, a property manager told a African-American individual that her criminal record would disqualify her from renting an apartment, but did not similarly discourage a White individual with a comparable criminal record from applying.”
HUD’s investigation into this practice is part of growing awareness and activism around the enormous and discriminatory American prison complex. Americans make up 5% of the global population, yet our prisoners are a quarter of the world’s incarcerated. Accordingly, approximately 100 million US adults have criminal records– nearly one third of the country. Nationwide, groups are working in concert to minimize the brutality of the carceral state. A sampling of these include:
- The “Ban the Box” campaign, which aims to stop employers from discriminating against formerly incarcerated people in their hiring practices
- Reclassifying drug use from a crime to an illness or legal activity
- Advocating for alternative forms of justice based on focusing on victims’ needs rather than punishment through Restorative Justice
- Reforming prisons so they no longer commit human rights abuses as defined by the UN
- Advocacy for eventual and complete prison abolition. Prisons are since prisons largely serve to create profit rather than “reform”or “rehabilitate” those locked inside. Anyway, there’s pretty damning evidence they’re just an evolved form of slavery
- And of course, a continued legacy of activism among prisoners themselves against brutality and mistreatment
Housing is hard enough to find and afford. If you insist on adding discrimination to the mix, you just set people up for homelessness, all but guaranteeing they’ll get in trouble with the law again. What sort of reform and rehabilitation is that?