Blog: Fair housing means discriminatory screening practices must end
Every April, we celebrate National Fair Housing Month. This year, April 11 marks the 54th anniversary of the 1968 civil rights law known as the Fair Housing Act. This landmark legislation prohibited housing discrimination based on protected categories such as race, color, sex, national origin and religion, providing a legal basis to address racism in housing transactions.
Despite the passage of the Fair Housing Act, fair housing continues to be an issue in Milwaukee. Formerly incarcerated people and people who have already been deported face additional difficulties in accessing safe and affordable housing. This targeted discrimination disproportionately affects blacks and browns.
This year, evictions have peaked. In fact, there is now more eviction filings than before the pandemic. We are in the midst of a housing crisis in which rents have gone up and wages have notso there is not enough affordable housing.
One of the most overlooked groups struggling to find affordable housing are formerly incarcerated people. After incarceration, one of the most important aspects of successful reintegration into the community is access to housing. Unfortunately, many landlords discriminate against those trying to reintegrate into society by prohibiting anyone with a previous criminal conviction or arrest record from renting accommodation. Racial discrimination screening policies that bar tenants with a history of arrest or prior convictions prevent already vulnerable populations from accessing housing.
Another group that struggles to find housing are tenants with a history of eviction. The blanket bans on tenants with eviction records on file fail to account for the many reasons a landlord might have filed for eviction, such as pandemic-related job loss or an unexpected medical emergency. .
In Milwaukee, we saw that eviction also disproportionately affects black women more than any other demographic. Matthew Desmond, sociologist at Harvard found that Milwaukee women who rent in black neighborhoods were evicted more than 1.8 times more often than male tenants in the same neighborhoods and more than five times more often than female tenants in white neighborhoods.
It follows that the common practice of screening potential tenants on the basis of eviction records disproportionately affects black women. Anti-discrimination laws such as the Fair Housing Act should prevent this intersectional racial and sexual discrimination.
Instead of blanket bans on prior convictions or evictions, landlords should conduct individualized analyzes of applicants. Public and subsidized housing must specifically end unfair screening policies, because people who were previously incarcerated or evicted are those most in need of public housing.
Racial disparities in housing perpetuate structural racism in Milwaukee. Housing is closely linked to wealth, health, education, voting rights, etc. People with eviction or conviction histories need help finding affordable housing, not barriers. The Fair Housing Act is clear: Black women and families deserve fair housing.
Help is here:
People facing eviction can seek help with paying their rent, mediation or dismissal in court. Last year, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley take a step towards the right to a lawyer for deportees by signing a bill which funds certain lawyers free of charge for the defense of deportations. Residents of Milwaukee can seek legal help at Milwaukee Legal Aid Society and Wisconsin lawsuit.