Virginia apartment manager ends screening policy barring renters with minor convictions

By: - July 28, 2020 11:46 am

Pinewood Plaza Apartments in Fairfax. (Google)

A company that manages about 1,700 of apartments in Northern Virginia has agreed to stop automatically rejecting any applicant with a criminal conviction no matter how old or minor — a policy that fair-housing advocates said discriminated against Black and Latino renters.

As a result of a lawsuit filed by Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, Kay Management Co. agreed to screen applicants primarily for felony convictions within the past five years. Under the new policy, the company can look 10 or more years into an applicant’s past only for homicides or serious sex- or drug-related crimes.

The case, similar to ones HOME has settled with apartment complexes in Chesterfield County and Richmond, was filed on behalf of a Black couple that Kay Management ousted from Pinewood Plaza Apartments in Fairfax after discovering that a family member had a 2008 conviction for cocaine possession and misdemeanor traffic violations.

A federal judge found that Kay Management’s previous policy violated state and federal law. HOME argued that the policy had a disproportionate impact on African American and Hispanic individuals “due to decades of mass incarceration and over-policing of Black and Latinx communities.” 

“When an overly broad criminal background screening policy is applied by a housing provider, it sets our society up for huge inequities,” Heather Mullins Crislip, president and CEO of HOME, said in a statement. “Overly broad criminal screening policies continue that sentence for a lifetime.”

The new screening policy applies to more than 12,000 rental units that Kay Management operates in the Washington suburbs of Virginia and Maryland. The company, based in Silver Spring, Md., manages 35 complexes, including Barcroft Plaza and Barcroft View apartments in Falls Church and London Park Towers and Woodmont Park Apartments in Alexandria.

HOME sued Kay Management on behalf of Mara Kniaz and Kuir Phillips, a couple who had been living with their children in Pinewood Plaza Apartments “without incident” for more than three years. Kniaz is biracial and identifies as Black, and Phillips is a Black man from Trinidad, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.

In 2017, the family applied to transfer to a larger unit, triggering a background check on Kniaz. It “showed a felony conviction from March 1, 2008, for possession of cocaine and misdemeanor traffic violations,” the suit said.

As a result, Kay Management and the Pinewood Plaza property manager ordered Kniaz and Phillips to vacate their apartment by Dec. 31, 2018. The family then moved to another apartment complex in Ashburn.

Before moving, Kniaz contacted HOME, which investigated Kay Management’s criminal background screening policy. The Richmond-based civil rights group found that the company excluded all applicants with felony convictions and most applicants with misdemeanor convictions. 

Such policies have a disproportionate impact on Black applicants because, by age 55, they are seven times more likely than non-Hispanic Whites to have a criminal record in Virginia, according to documents filed in the case. Latinos at that age are 4.5 times more likely than non-Hispanic Whites to have a criminal record.

“Mass incarceration has permeated every aspect of life, from education to employment and housing,” said Sarah Carthen Watson, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which represented HOME in the suit.

The suit said Kay Management’s “blanket and automatic denial of housing to persons with virtually any type of criminal background is not necessary” to ensure safety in an apartment community. 

Under the settlement approved by U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady, Kay Management agreed to screen applicants primarily for felony convictions in the past five years. The new policy allows the company to go back 10 years for convictions involving the sale, distribution or manufacturing of drugs; 12 years for homicides and forcible felony sex-related offenses; and 25 years for registered sex offenders.

Company officials declined to comment on the consent order.

“We commend Kay Management Co. for making this progressive update to their criminal background screening policies, and we encourage other management companies and apartment properties to examine their own tenant screening criteria,” said Alex Guzmán, HOME’s director of fair housing.

Under pressure from HOME, he said, two other apartment complexes have made similar changes in their criminal background screening policies in the past year: Sterling Glen Apartments in Chesterfield County and Bloom Apartments in Richmond.

Guzmán worries that it may be harder to bring such pressure under a rule proposed by the Trump administration. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would require groups like HOME to meet a higher standard in proving unintentional discrimination.

“I believe this would make the Fair Housing Act essentially unenforceable except in instances of individual complaints,” Guzmán said. “And even in those cases, if the individual prevails, which is difficult, housing providers are not generally asked to address the larger systemic issue their policy causes.”

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Jeff South
Jeff South

Jeff South retired after 23 years as a journalism professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. Before that, he was a newspaper editor and reporter for 20 years in Virginia, Texas and Arizona. He can be reached at [email protected].