AG’s Wing Luke Civil Rights Unit resolves allegations against 5 housing providers of fair-housing-law violations
SEATTLE — Attorney General Bob Ferguson today announced his office has taken significant action to combat housing discrimination. A court has approved the last of five legal resolutions with rental housing companies across the state accused of violating federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) by using blanket bans on tenants with a past felony. The resolutions all involve fines of $5,000 or more, penalties and nondiscrimination training.
While criminal history may be grounds to refuse to rent to an individual, landlords cannot have a blanket ban on renting to anyone who has a previous felony conviction or arrest record. Instead, they must consider individual facts such as the type and severity of the offense and how long ago the offense occurred. Because certain groups of people, such as African-Americans, have higher statistical rates of arrests and convictions, blanket bans have the effect of making it harder for African-Americans than for other groups to find housing. This disparate impact renders blanket policies illegal.
Under these types of blanket bans, a 30-year-old simple marijuana possession conviction may preclude a person from finding housing.
Of 50 property firms reviewed, the investigation found inappropriately broad bans imposed and applied at:
- Kirkland-based Weidner Property Management LLC, a housing provider that manages over 200 properties nationwide,
- Tacoma-based Dobler Management Company, Inc.,
- Seattle-based Coho Real Estate Group, LLC,
- Tacoma-based Pacific Crest LLC, and
- Seattle-based Premier Residential, LLC.
“Fair access to housing is the right of all Washingtonians,” Ferguson said. “Housing providers have a responsibility to provide that access without discrimination, and my office will make sure they live up to it.”
Criminal convictions may be grounds for housing providers to deny applicants after appropriate inquiry. Fair housing laws, however, prohibit landlords from applying overly broad bans on those convicted of crimes, because such bans are likely to discriminate against minorities.
When an investigator with the Attorney General’s Office’s Wing Luke Civil Rights Unit contacted rental companies posing as a prospective renter with a felony conviction, some landlords appropriately followed up with questions as to the nature, circumstances and timing of the felony. However, the Wing Luke Civil Rights Unit found five providers flatly denied applicants based on the mention of a criminal history, without asking for any further information.
An AGO investigator posed as an individual with either an unspecified felony conviction or a 10-year-old felony theft conviction. At least one property manager replied that “criminal background will result in an automatic denial.”
The Attorney General’s Office filed Consent Decrees with those five companies in superior courts in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. All of the resolutions include monetary fines and civil penalties, and they require adoption of nondiscrimination policies and training for employees and agents.
Federal and state law
Both the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) prohibit discrimination in rental or real estate transactions on the basis of race or color. If a policy or practice has a disparate impact on a group of persons because of their race, it is unlawful.
The disparate impact of blanket bans on renters with any form of criminal history has been increasingly defined by courts and federal agencies.
In April 2016, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), issued guidance specifically outlining the fair housing implications of such bans, and explaining landlords’ responsibilities in creating a fair screening process.
HUD’s guidance notes that across the country, African-Americans and Hispanics are arrested and incarcerated at much higher rates than their share of the general population.
For example, in 2015, African-Americans comprised 26.6 percent of all arrestees, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation — double their rate in the general population, according to census estimates.
The HUD guidance notes: “A housing provider violates the Fair Housing Act when the provider’s policy or practice has an unjustified discriminatory effect, even when the provider had no intent to discriminate.”
The guidance provides a detailed explanation of how to evaluate whether a policy is discriminatory, and the obligations of housing providers to craft policies that serve a specific interest without discriminating unjustly.
Housing providers must be able to show policies restricting applicants with criminal convictions serve a “‘substantial, legitimate, nondiscriminatory interest.’ They must show that such policies accurately distinguish between criminal conduct that indicates a demonstrable risk to resident safety and/or property and criminal conduct that does not.”
Numerous fair housing trainings are available to help housing providers understand their legal obligations. Some are hosted by the King County Office of Civil Rights, the Northwest Fair Housing Alliance, and the Fair Housing Center of Washington.
Assistant Attorney General Marsha Chien handled these cases.
The Wing Luke Civil Rights Unit works to protect the rights of all Washington residents by enforcing state and federal anti-discrimination laws. It is named for Wing Luke, who served as an Assistant Attorney General for the state of Washington in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He went on to become the first person of color elected to the Seattle City Council and the first Asian-American elected to public office in the Pacific Northwest.
The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Peter Lavallee, Communications Director, (360) 586-0725; PeterL@atg.wa.gov