Each April, we celebrate National Fair Housing Month. This year, April 11 marks the 54th anniversary of the 1968 Civil Rights Act known as the Fair Housing Act. This landmark legislation outlawed housing discrimination on the basis of protected classes such as race, color, sex, national origin, and religion, providing a legal basis to remedy racism in housing transactions.
Despite the passage of the Fair Housing Act, fair housing continues to be an issue in Milwaukee. Formerly incarcerated individuals and people with prior eviction records face additional challenges in accessing safe and affordable housing. This targeted discrimination disproportionately impacts Black and Brown people.
This year, evictions have hit a high point. In fact, there are now more eviction filings than pre-pandemic. We are in the midst of a housing crisis in which rents have risen and wages have not, so there isn’t enough affordable housing.
One of the groups most forgotten who struggle to find affordable housing are formerly incarcerated people. After incarceration, one of the most important aspects of successful reentry into the community is access to housing. Unfortunately, many landlords discriminate against those trying to reenter society by barring anyone with a previous criminal conviction or arrest record from renting housing. Racially discriminatory screening policies which ban tenants with arrest records or previous convictions block already vulnerable populations from attaining a place to live.
Another group that struggles to find housing are tenants with previous eviction records. Blanket bans on tenants with eviction filings on their records do not take into account the many reasons a landlord might have filed for eviction such as a pandemic-related job loss or an unexpected medical emergency.
In Milwaukee, we’ve seen that eviction also disproportionately affects Black women more than any other demographic. Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond found that Milwaukee women renting in Black neighborhoods faced eviction more than 1.8 times as often as male renters from the same neighborhoods and more than five times as often as women renters from white neighborhoods.
It follows that the common practice of screening out potential tenants based on eviction records disproportionately impacts Black women. Anti-discrimination laws like the Fair Housing Act should prevent this intersectional racial and gender discrimination.
Instead of blanket bans on former convictions or evictions, landlords should conduct individualized analyses of candidates. Public and subsidized housing specifically must end unfair screening policies because people who were formerly incarcerated or evicted are the very ones most in need of public housing.
Racial disparities in housing perpetuate structural racism in Milwaukee. Housing is intricately tied to wealth, health, education, voting enfranchisement, and more. People with eviction or conviction records need support in securing affordable housing, not obstacles. The Fair Housing Act is clear: Black women and families deserve fair housing.
Help is out there:
People facing eviction can seek help paying rent, mediation, or dismissal in court. Last year, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley took a step toward the right to counsel for evictees by signing a bill which funds some lawyers for eviction defense free of charge. Milwaukeeans can apply for legal help at Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee and Legal Action of Wisconsin.