A new policy for screening applicants at a Chesterfield County apartment complex – developed as part of a settlement in a housing discrimination lawsuit brought by the ACLU, the ACLU of Virginia and the civil rights law firm Relman, Dane & Colfax, PLLC on behalf of Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia (HOME) – should serve as a model for the rental housing industry.
Sterling Glen Apartments and its management company have agreed to change their criminal history screening policy and train their employees in fair housing practices in order to stop the racial disparities under its previous practices, among other aspects of the settlement.
The lawsuit was filed in June 2019 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The complaint alleged that Sterling Glen’s blanket ban carried over racial disparities present at all stages of the criminal justice system into the housing context. This categorical ban violated both federal and state fair housing laws.
The new policy being adopted by Sterling Glen should serve as a model to other housing providers. First, it ensures that a potential tenant is otherwise financially qualified before conducting a limited criminal background history. This limited screening only considers specific categories of offenses, including property crimes and major violent offenses. This helps ensure an applicant’s criminal history is only considered when it needs to be — once a person has met the other criteria for residency — and is narrowly tailored to only consider categories of offenses that are related to community or property safety.
Second, the limited screening excludes misdemeanor convictions and does not treat people differently based on whether the applicant is on probation or parole. It also does not consider arrests, charges, expunged convictions, convictions reversed on appeal, vacated convictions, offenses where adjudication was withheld or deferred, pardoned convictions, or sealed juvenile records. These limitations ensure that the policy is not overly broad, considering only conduct related to an individual’s qualifications as a tenant.
Third, the criminal history screening will only consider convictions from within the previous five years so people are not needlessly and permanently penalized for prior conduct.
Most importantly, the policy assures individualized consideration for every applicant with convictions for specific types of felonies. Even if a prospective tenant is identified as having a felony conviction in one of the specified categories of offenses within the five years prior to the application, the applicant can provide more information and it will be considered. A prospective resident can share facts or circumstances surrounding the criminal conduct, proof of rehabilitation efforts, and evidence of a good tenant or employment history before or after the conviction or conduct. This guarantees that every applicant has the opportunity to show their ability to fulfill the obligations of tenancy.
This resolution, and Sterling Glen’s new policy, represents a significant step toward equal housing access for everyone, regardless of criminal history. This policy provides a model for all housing providers and serves as a warning for those who are not currently complying with their legal obligation to individually consider each applicant and provide everyone with equal housing access.