Are Criminals and Sex Offenders a Protected Class?

When you’re a landlord, it’s important to pay attention to the rules and regulations regarding protected classes. As any rental property owner knows, it is illegal to discriminate against someone because they are a member of a protected class. So, refusing to rent to someone because of their sex, ethnicity, religion, national origin, or even a mental or physical disability is illegal under The Fair Housing Act. However, what about when a potential renter has a criminal record? Especially if that criminal record means they’re a convicted sex offender? Are you able to refuse service to them then?

Are Criminals and Sex Offenders a Protected Class?

The great thing about laws regarding protected classes is they’re fairly clear-cut. Either someone is a member of a protected class, or they aren’t, and that is that. If you look at The Fair Housing Act, criminal record is not listed anywhere. You’ll find much the same thing across the U.S. when it comes to state laws and regulations as well. Criminal record isn’t found on the lists of protected classes, even in places where the lists of protected classes far outstrips the one provided by the federal government when it comes to fair housing standards.

However, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been attempts to make criminal record into a protected status. In Seattle, Washington, for example, there have been campaigns to make those with criminal records a protected class in order to eliminate (or at least mitigate) the stigma people who have served their time suffer from. Given that those who have done time in jail and prison cannot live in federally assisted housing, and that it’s hard for them to find employment, they’re often dealing with impossible circumstances.

Should You Exclude Possible Tenants With Criminal Records?

To paraphrase a popular daytime cop drama, “hey, they gotta live somewhere, right?”

As has been stated, possessing a criminal record doesn’t make someone part of a protected class according to federal law. While local and state laws vary, and landlords need to be familiar with them, if criminals and sex offenders aren’t specifically listed, then they are not a protected class in those areas either. However, just because someone is not a member of a protected class, that doesn’t mean a landlord shouldn’t consider the implication of using a status to filter someone out.

For example, say someone was hitting all the right notes on an application. They have a job, they have good credit, and previous landlords have no complaints about them or their behavior. They look like a great fit, but they also have a criminal record. Do you turn them aside? Or do you accept another applicant who has a clean criminal history, but who isn’t as strong as the first applicant in other areas?

Are you obligated to overlook that first applicant’s criminal record? No, if you wish to, you can simply maintain a policy that you don’t rent to anyone who has a criminal record. That is a perfectly legal thing for you to do as a landlord, provided it doesn’t violate any of your local regulations. However, just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should. It’s important to look at every tenant as a potential investment that you’re making. Will they pay the rent on time? Will they leave the house or apartment in the same condition they found it in? Do they have money in the bank, and a steady income? A criminal history complicates matters, but it’s important to be as objective as possible.

For more information on protected classes, and your duties as a landlord, simply contact us today!

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