7 Steps Towards More Equitable Criminal Background Screening in Housing

Inequitable background screenings are a microcosm of the ways the criminal justice system has failed marginalized communities, creating negative feedback loops instead of protecting the communities they were put in place to serve. In America, there is no question that BIPOC face inequality in many forms, including a very prominent history of over-policing by the criminal justice system. From more severe sentences for the same type of crime, to increased likelihoods of being pulled over during the day (when race is clearly visible), systemic marginalization has rooted itself in our institutions. This marginalization has profound effects on the everyday lives of oppressed peoples, including gaining access to safe and secure housing.

In 2022, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released a memo detailing how criminal background screenings, as they currently function, disproportionately block Black people from accessing housing. The memo suggests that criminal background screenings form vague and inaccurate judgments on people with criminal records and are not good determinants of one’s success as a tenant. Let’s unpack some of its suggestions on how to make criminal background screening policies more inclusive and equitable.

Here are 7 Steps Towards More Equitable Criminal Background Screening in Housing

  • 1. Consider if Background Checks are Even Necessary 

Recognizing that criminal history is not strong evidence for if someone will be a good tenant encourages a shift towards more equitable housing practices. This awareness can help reduce biased barriers to housing, benefiting applicants who might otherwise be unfairly excluded. It is important to remember that prediction is not synonymous with causality, and to approach criminal histories with a humanitarian and liberatory mindset.

  • 2. Implement Transparent Screening Policies

For housing providers conducting checks, transparency ensures fairness and clarity. This means having an easily accessible policy that anyone can read and that clearly states how the policy works. This empowers applicants by making the screening process understandable and navigable, as opposed to being an anxious toss up where denials leave prospective tenants in the dark about why exactly they were denied. Applicants with criminal backgrounds can spend hundreds of dollars a year on applications that will automatically screen them out. 

  • 3. Ground Policies in Reliable Evidence

Basing policies on solid evidence, rather than assumptions, leads to safer and fairer housing practices. This means doing research into what types of offenses are good predictors for future harm  with the purpose of removing barriers to entry for people whose past actions won’t make them poor tenants.

  • 4. Conduct Nuanced Evaluations of Criminal Records

Looking at the context of criminal records—considering the severity, nature, and recency of offenses—leads to more informed and fair housing decisions. Before making a decision about a prospective tenant, ask if there are any mitigating factors, like a long time since an offense happened.

  • 5. Critically Assess Third-Party Screening Services

Third-party screening services claim they offer reduced risk to landlords performing routine screenings on prospective tenants, but in reality these services can use inaccurate or biased data. The FTC’s recent memo on price fixing by algorithm shows that using a third-party service may still open housing providers up to liability in the screening process. Be careful. Thorough consideration of the reliability and fairness of third-party screening services helps prevent biases in the screening process, and keep in mind that you’ll want to check the results before making a final decision.

  • 6. Offer Applicants the Opportunity to Respond

Allowing applicants to address or provide context for their criminal records cultivates mutually communicative relationships between communities and institutional powers. This step is crucial for ensuring that decisions are based on comprehensive and accurate information, respecting the dignity and rights of applicants. Especially if you’re using an external system, this step means applicants can correct any errors.

  • 7. Prefer Individualized Assessments 

Approaching each applicant as a human being and trying to understand if they really do pose a risk to current tenants is the best way to make sure criminal background screening policies actually protect people, while minimizing the impact of systemic discrimination on the housing search process. 

In conclusion, criminal background screening is not proven to be necessary to provide safe and stable housing. Criminal background screening policies are often used as a proxy for race, national origin, and disability discrimination. No one should be denied  housing without a clear reason why, and both staff and applicants should have a clear understanding of what the screening policy is. 

By embracing these steps, we can dismantle another tool of systemic oppression that has plagued our communities for decades. Understanding the significance of each action step helps build a foundation for policies and practices that respect the dignity of all applicants and support the creation of inclusive communities.

Posted by Malcolm Phillipson 03/08/2024and categorized as Blog, Press Releases, Uncategorized