The Newhousing Segregation: The Jim Croweffects of Crime-Free Housing Ordinances

By Archer, Deborah N. | Michigan Law Review, November 2019 | Go to article overview

The Newhousing Segregation: The Jim Croweffects of Crime-Free Housing Ordinances


Archer, Deborah N., Michigan Law Review


Introduction

Crime-free housing ordinances and programs are part of the expanding web of zero-tolerance policies adopted by private landlords and public housing authorities. These policies ban renting to individuals with a criminal history or allowing those individuals to live with their families.1 In many cases, they bar and expel people from rental housing without consideration for the amount of time that has passed since the conviction, the nature of the underlying conduct, the actions of a formerly incarcerated person postconviction, or the preexisting racial and class disparities in the criminal legal system. Take the story of Melvin Lofton. At the age of twenty, Mr. Lofton was convicted for burglary and theft. Today, at the age of fifty-one, Mr. Lofton has been out of prison for over twenty years. Yet his conviction makes it extremely difficult to find housing on his own.2 Or, consider the story of a New York mother threatened with eviction after her fifteen-year-old son was "banned" because of an arrest for marijuana possession.3 These stories are not unique. Across the country, people involved in the criminal legal system and their families are being squeezed out of various housing markets. At best, many of these people find themselves with one option: to live in poor communities of color already struggling with a shortage of affordable housing and the impact of high concentrations of residents with criminal records.

The adoption of crime-free housing ordinances and programs ("crimefree ordinances") is becoming a national trend. According to one estimate, approximately 2,000 municipalities across forty-eight states have adopted crime-free housing ordinances.4 These local ordinances have the purported goal of stemming crime in rental housing by forcing landlords, either through mandatory action or seemingly voluntary guidance, to exclude or evict tenants who have had some degree of contact with the criminal legal system. As I will explain, while there is no evidence that these ordinances reduce crime, there is reason to believe that they play a role in restricting access to affordable housing and promoting racial segregation.

The impact of crime-free ordinances on racial segregation should be a matter of great public concern. At a time when America's population has become more racially diverse,5 extreme residential segregation on the basis of race nonetheless persists.6 The United States has a long and complicated history of racial segregation in housing, enforced through public policies,7 individual acts of discrimination,8 and mob violence.9 The cumulative effects of this segregation on people of color are profound. Research has consistently concluded that Black and Latinx people living in racially segregated communities, with the concentrated poverty that often accompanies such segregation, have profoundly limited life opportunities.10 Residential segregation affects an individual's access to quality education,11 employment opportuni ties,12 government services,13 and social capital.14 Residents of racially segregated communities also experience increased contact with the criminal legal system-one of the critical drivers of unequal opportunity in America.15 Poor, isolated, over-policed, and under-resourced communities of color are a legacy of housing discrimination.16

Yet, despite the persistent impacts of residential racial segregation, housing discrimination is often perceived as a relic of history, solved long ago with the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 196817 and decades of its enforcement by the government and private citizens. According to this narrative, lingering segregation is largely driven by regrettable but understandable private choices beyond the reach of the law-rational decisions motivated by the desire to live in safe communities with high-quality schools, good amenities, and high property values.18 The narrative concludes that the fact that safer and more resourced communities happen to be predominantly White is mostly a result of historic racial discrimination, not current laws, policies, or practices. …

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