The Madison Police Department’s policies concerning tenants in rental housing, including tenant screening, soliciting tenant lists and enforcing visitor bans, are under scrutiny by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Invoking the Fair Housing Act, ACLU attorneys Rachel Goodman and Karyn Rotker sent a letter to Madison Police Chief Mike Koval Monday expressing concern that these MPD policies “disproportionately impact tenants of color and tenants living in neighborhoods of color” and raise concerns in regards to the FHA.
The FHA protects people from discrimination based on “race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability and the presence of children” when they are renting, buying or seeking financing for any housing, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
This federal guideline was released in April 2016 concurrent to the ACLU’s investigation into the MPD, reaffirming the organization’s concerns, Karyn Rotker, senior staff attorney for ACLU of Wisconsin, said. Additionally, Rotker said the Madison Police Department Policy & Procedure Review Ad Hoc Committee is addressing similar issues raised.
Rotker said the main concern is “over-engaging policing, especially when there are racial disparities.”
“Right now at this point, what we want to see is how the city responds,” Rotker said.
City Attorney Michael May said the city is in the process of looking at the letter and determining a response. Madison Police Department spokesman Joel DeSpain declined to comment because the city attorney’s office is reviewing the letter.
The ACLU’s concerns
Using several pieces of MPD communication, the letter says that the MPD instructs property owners and managers that face nuisance property proceedings to screen potential tenants based on criminal history.
Additionally, the MPD released records to the ACLU showing that 34 properties facing nuisance property proceedings were located in areas with average populations of 12 percent black and 14 percent Latino, though Madison’s population as a whole is 7 percent black and 7 percent Latino, according to the letter.
The letter cites nationwide data showing black and Hispanic people are arrested and imprisoned at a higher rate than their proportion of the general population. Statewide data shows that black individuals make up 6 percent of Wisconsin’s population but account for 24 percent of arrests in 2012.
“Pressing landlords in neighborhoods of color, in particular, to screen tenants based on criminal history can only exacerbate the racially adverse impact of these policies,” the letter states.
Noted in the letter is another MPD notice of chronic nuisance premises that mentions fair housing concerns and does not include instructions to conduct background checks.
“While we are pleased that MPD is aware of the fair housing implications of its nuisance property actions, it is not clear why that concern is absent in the other form letters,” the letter states.
Solicitation of lists, visitor bans
Records obtained by the ACLU show that the police department asks landlords to provide lists of tenants living in rental housing and that it obtains them from affordable housing providers and landlords with alleged nuisance properties — possibly leading to FHA violations, the ACLU said.
Specifically, the records contain lists of names and addresses for public housing residents living at the Gay Braxton, Brittingham, Karabis and Parkside apartments, according to the letter.
People of color are more likely to live in rental housing. According to U.S. Census data, 46 percent of white tenants live in rental housing compared to 81 percent of black and 71 percent of Latino tenants. Additionally, 37 percent of Madison public housing residents are black, according to HUD data.
Last, the ACLU said in the letter the MPD’s visitor ban policy affects communities of color more due to their “disproportionate contact with law enforcement in Madison.” Installing "No Trespassing" signs is a recommended MPD tactic for nuisance properties and it allows MPD to declare any non-resident on the property to be trespassing.
“As a result of these bans, family members — even those who may be providing critical support, such as child care — cannot visit tenants,” the letter states.
Recommendations to move forward
The ACLU urges the MPD to adopt the following recommendations:
- Ensuring that landlords throughout the city are educated about and comply with FHA requirements including the prohibition on excluding people based on arrest records and on blanket exclusions of persons with convictions.
- Cease criminal history screening of tenants.
- Cease routine solicitation and collection of tenant lists, and only use tenant-identifying information to use in investigation of specific crimes.
- Include suggestions for alternatives to eviction, such as excluding a culpable household member, entering into a probation tenancy agreement (contingent on no future nuisance activity), or participating in a treatment/rehabilitation program. Alternatives to eviction that are focused on ceasing the problem activity, rather than just moving some involved individuals around.
- Protect innocent family members, many of whom are children.
- Ensure that nuisance ordinances are not enforced against crime victims, including against victims of domestic violence who call the police for assistance, or against persons with disabilities, where the calls relate to a manifestation of the disability.
- Cease recommending individuals be banned from properties without sufficient proof of criminal activity on or near the premises that poses a threat to the residents.