Orlando Realtor Sued for Refusing to Rent to Felons

May 20, 2019 – An Orlando Realtor who operates as a property manager was talking to a potential renter recently who said he had a felony conviction on his record. The Realtor turned down the application, saying he “doesn’t rent to people with felony convictions.”

A few days later, that Realtor received a summons/lawsuit claiming discrimination.

“There’s nothing in the Fair Housing Act specifically denying a landlord the right to reject an applicant based on a prior felony conviction,” says Meredith Caruso, associate general counsel for Florida Realtors. “However a blanket policy to deny felons can have an indirect impact on minority populations (disparate impact), leading the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to issue a statement in 2016 regarding criminal backgrounds.”

According to a University of Georgia study – one of the few that looked at race and felony convictions – 8 percent of Americans have a felony conviction on their record. However, in the black community – the minority group the University of Georgia studied – 23 percent have a felony conviction, with the rate as high as 33 percent for adult males. The higher percentage results, in part, from an anti-drug crackdown about 30 years ago that focused on low-income communities.

Since some minority communities have a higher percentage of members convicted of a felony, HUD reasons, a blanket policy not to rent to felons has a disparate income on minorities. This “disparate impact” means a blanket policy against felony convictions violates the Fair Housing Act, according to HUD.

What can landlords do?

Things to consider when developing an in-house rental policy:

  • Overall impact: Does the policy have a disparate impact – an action that may not discriminate against a specific applicant yet still impact a group protected under the Fair Housing Act? Is there a distinct impact on a group of people because of their race or national origin, for example? HUD recognizes that this is fact specific; however, it points to several Department of Justice statistics showing that blanket denials based on criminal history have a significant impact on African Americans and Hispanics.

  • Justified policy: A housing provider must show that its screening policy is justified, which HUD defines as “necessary to achieve a substantial, legitimate, nondiscriminatory interest.” The policy can’t be speculative or hypoth