After racial bias allegations, Va. apartment complex agrees to end blanket ban on felons

The owners of Sterling Glen Apartments in Chesterfield County agreed to end a blanket ban on renting to people with felony convictions after fair housing advocates challenged the policy in court at racially discriminatory. (Google maps)

Fair housing advocates hope a Chesterfield County apartment complex’s new approach to screening applicants will serve as a model policy for landlords around the state.

Richmond-based Housing Opportunities Made Equal sued Sterling Glen Apartments and Wisely Properties in June, alleging their blanket ban on renting to felons and people with certain misdemeanor convictions amounted to racial discrimination because black residents in the area are three times more likely than white residents to have a felony arrest record.

Under fair housing law, even if a policy is race-neutral on its face, it’s still illegal if it has a discriminatory impact.

HOME said the case was particularly important because the screening process “had a disproportionate and discriminatory effect on African Americans in a predominantly white part of Chesterfield County.”

In an announcement Tuesday, HOME said Sterling Glen agreed to settle the case by adopting a new policy that ends the blanket ban and instead “only considers felony convictions for specific categories of offenses, excludes misdemeanor convictions, and does not treat people differently based on whether the applicant is on probation or parole.”

They also agreed to pay for attorneys fees, damages and make a $15,000 donation to HOME. The ACLU of Virginia and civil rights law firm Relman, Dane & Colfax represented the organization in the case.

“By adopting this new policy, Wisely has become a model and example for all housing providers in Virginia who do not conduct an individualized criminal background screening,” Heather Mullins Crislip, president and CEO of HOME, said in a statement.

“A policy that first screens applicants on their income and credit, then allows for a limited and relevant criminal background screening creates a more diverse community and helps many people who are trying to get their lives back on track be members of their community of choice. We’re grateful that Wisely took our concerns for equity in the process seriously and that we were able to work out an ideal policy.”