On June 4, 2019, Relman, Dane & Colfax filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, Inc. (HOME) against the owner and management company of a Chesterfield County, Virginia, apartment complex challenging, as racially discriminatory, defendants’ one-size-fits-all policy of rejecting any and all applicants with criminal backgrounds as racially discriminatory.

Sterling Glen Apartments makes no secret of its policy: it openly maintains a written policy of barring applicants who have any felony (or selected misdemeanor) conviction, regardless of how long ago it occurred. Because the policy does not consider the seriousness of such an offense, applicants can be denied for conduct as minor as leaving the scene of an automobile accident, shoplifting, and possession of small amounts of marijuana. The lawsuit names Wisely Properties, Inc., which owns Sterling Glen and, Multifamily Management Services Inc., both based in Staunton, Virginia. The firm’s co-counsel are the ACLU Foundation and the ACLU of Virginia Foundation.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has recognized that people of color are disproportionately harmed by policies that exclude those with criminal records, and that such policies can therefore constitute race discrimination under the Fair Housing Act.

In Chesterfield County, a black resident is three times more likely than a white resident to have a felony or misdemeanor conviction. Notably, Sterling Glen’s policy allows no exceptions based on how long ago the conduct occurred, whether the crime bears any relationship to what sort of tenant or neighbor the resident might be, whether there is evidence of rehabilitation, or whether the applicant has been a good tenant elsewhere.   

Such broad criminal background bans that do not consider mitigating measures ignore studies demonstrating the poor predictive quality of convictions, and pose substantial obstacles for people of color. A case-by-case consideration of each applicant would protect public health and safety, while still permitting applicants to demonstrate they can be good tenants.   

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. It seeks to enjoin the discriminatory policy and require a revised policy. In addition, it seeks an award of compensatory and punitive damages to HOME because the discriminatory policy interferes with its mission to expand housing opportunities for people of color.  

Relman, Dane & Colfax’s litigation team is led by Glenn Schlactus, Tara Ramchandani, Sara Pratt, and Orly May. Rachel Goodman, Alejandro Ortiz, and Joshua David Riegel of the ACLU Foundation, and Eden Heilman and Jennifer Safstrom of the ACLU Foundation of Virginia, are co-counsel.

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