Real Estate Trends & Advice: Do You Have to Rent to a Criminal?

Do You Have to Rent to a Criminal?
By Jim Palmer Jr.

Those in the real estate industry who manage rentals are careful to adhere to Realtor® ethics and especially state and federal fair housing laws that prohibit discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status or national origin. However, property managers can still be selective when it comes to the prospective tenant’s ability to pay. 
In the past, property managers also routinely screened tenants based on criminal convictions in order to avoid renting to someone who may put their property or other tenants at risk.  That practice, while discriminatory, did not violate state laws because criminals were not considered a protected class.  But times have changed when it comes to that practice!

Under the reign of the current governor’s administration and more particularly Washington’s attorney general, Bob Ferguson, discriminating against criminals is illegal. Bob Ferguson interprets and enforces that portion of state and federal law such that he brought legal action against property managers who eliminated potential tenants based only on the fact that the tenant had a felony on their record.  His logic is that because there are statistically more people of color with felonies on their records, a policy that prohibits all felons has a disproportionate impact on people of color, thus violating the Fair Housing Act. 

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said, “Blanket bans on renting to felons or people with criminal histories had a disproportionate impact on black and Hispanic people, who are arrested, convicted and jailed at higher rates than their white counterparts.

Because of that reasoning, Washington requires it’s landlords to consider a criminal history only as grounds for asking additional questions, such as to the nature of the crime, when it was committed, what the person has done since that time, whether they fulfilled their sentence, whether they have participated in rehab programs and of course, what their recent record shows. 

If the landlord’s decision is not a fair reflection of the prospective tenant’s past, then they may be out of line with the current AG’s interpretation of Fair Housing Laws and subject to similar censor such as the property managers who were defendants in the AG’s prosecution several years ago.
Recent legislation has significantly lengthened the amount of time it takes to evict any tenant, making it even more difficult for landlords.  It is wise for any landlord, rich or poor, to be up to speed on landlord tenant laws.  Has the compassion pendulum swung too far?