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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Landlords can’t have blanket policy of refusing to rent to people with a criminal history, Washington attorney general says

In this Sept. 2, 2015 file photo, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson speaks at a news conference in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / AP)

The Washington State Attorney General’s office has sanctioned five property companies for refusing to rent to anyone with a criminal history, saying those policies are a form of de facto racial discrimination.

Though all five companies are based in Western Washington, fair housing advocates say the legal actions against them will make it easier to challenge similar policies in the Spokane area.

Layne Pavey, the director of advocacy group I Did the Time, said she had trouble finding housing she could apply for after spending 20 months in prison after a federal drug conviction because her boyfriend was selling cocaine out of her home.

“Almost every ad that I saw, almost every application that you see for housing or jobs, it said no felons, felons need not apply,” she said. “They are judging people by the crime instead of judging people by what they’re doing with their life today.”

The cases come after guidelines issued last spring by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which 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 then their white counterparts.

Those guidelines said landlords needed to show that policies excluding people with certain types of criminal records were necessary to achieve a legitimate interest. Barring someone convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine in their last apartment would likely qualify, for example, as would barring sex offenders or people with recent assault convictions.

“A housing provider that imposes a blanket prohibition on any person with any conviction record – no matter when the conviction occurred, what the underlying conduct entailed, or what the convicted person has done since then – will be unable to meet this burden,” the guidelines said.

For landlords, the guidelines and sanctions raised concern. Kevin McKee, a board member of the Spokane Landlord’s Association, said many smaller landlords bar felons because they don’t have the resources or knowledge to do a more detailed criminal screening. With rental vacancies in Spokane at historic lows, landlords don’t want to take the risk of renting to someone who may prove to be a problem.

“We’re kind of caught in the middle trying to reduce risk and it’s a tight, tight market,” McKee said.

McKee’s company manages about 100 rental properties, though he’s stopped taking on new ones because of the number of requirements and regulations that come with running them. He said he asks about criminal convictions, but makes a decision based on the type of criminal conviction. Someone convicted of possessing marijuana before it was legalized would probably not be an issue, but a sex offense or manufacturing drugs wouldn’t make the cut, he said.

In Washington, the Attorney General’s civil rights unit contacted 50 rental companies around the state, posing as a prospective renter with a felony conviction. Most of the landlords followed up with more specific questions about the charge and when it occurred, but others flatly denied applicants.

The sanctioned companies are Weidner Property Management, based in Kirkland; Dobler Management Company and Pacific Crest, based in Tacoma; and Premier Residential and Coho Real Estate Group, based in Seattle. Peter Lavallee, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said Weidner also operates properties in Moses Lake. All five companies had to pay a fine of at least $5,000 and will have to revise their policies and undergo nondiscrimination training.

Lavallee said the office investigates discrimination regardless of the size of the rental company and encouraged people to contact the Wing Luke Civil Rights Unit if they believe they have been discriminated against in housing.

Marley Hochendoner, the executive director of Northwest Fair Housing Alliance, said she’s helped trained landlords on the new guidelines since last spring. The alliance works in 17 counties in eastern and central Washginton.

Hochendoner said landlords often have questions about the guidelines or a misconception that they can’t screen for felonies at all or bar people with certain types of convictions. The point of the guidelines, she said, is that criminal histories need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

“You can still have a policy, it just needs to be really thoughtful and well-tailored,” she said.

Pavey, who also works as a case manager helping people with criminal records get back on their feet, said she regularly encounters policies in Spokane barring all convicted felons from renting. Even when clients disclose their criminal history, landlords often have them fill out an application, charge them for a background check and then deny them on the basis of the conviction.

“People go around spending $35 here and $35 there and before you know it the entire money they’ve saved for their deposit is gone,” she said.

She’s hopeful the sanctions will help get policies in Spokane rentals changed.

“We don’t want to set up landlords. We don’t want to find ways to sue people. We just want them to give us a chance,” Pavey said.