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Crime & Justice

Group Wants City To Ban Housing Discrimination Based On Criminal Records

111720 Reentry Alliance presser.jpg
David Boraks
Chablis Dandridge (front) and Traletta Banks (right) spoke at a Reentry Housing Alliance press conference Tuesday at Charlotte Mecklenburg Government Center. Both have had trouble finding housing because of criminal records. They want the city to amend its fair housing rules to protect people like them.

Updated Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020
People who serve time in prison often have trouble finding housing once they're out. So Charlotte housing advocates want the city council to update fair housing rules with protections for these people.

Chablis Dandridge spent 13 years in prison on drugs and weapons charges. While in prison he got a college degree, learned Spanish, became a certified paralegal, and saved $8,000. But when he got out in 2017, he had to move in with his mother, because he couldn't find a landlord who would rent to him.

"Even though I had the money, and had made tremendous changes in my life, nobody was willing to give me a chance," Dandridge said.

He and other members of the Reentry Housing Alliance gathered outside the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center Tuesday to call on the city council to amend the fair housing ordinance to protect people with criminal records.

The Reentry Housing Alliance is a collection of service and faith groups that tries to educate landlords and lobbies for policy changes to help people who have criminal records. The group's proposed ordinance changes would:

  • Require landlords to verify applicants' ability to pay before researching criminal convictions.
  • Let housing applicants show they've been rehabilitated.
  • Guarantee applicants the right to file complaints if they're disqualified because of their criminal records.
  • Set up a public body to investigate and enforce all renter complaints.
  • Require landlords to say publicly if they would refuse to rent to people with criminal backgrounds.

It's not specifically against North Carolina or federal law to refuse to rent to people based on their criminal histories. The Housing Reentry Alliance says that to fully enforce a revised ordinance, the city would need legislative approval.

City Studies the Idea, Mayor Supports It

The alliance is working with the Charlotte Community Relations Committee on the proposed ordinance changes. Committee chair Willie Ratchford is scheduled to brief the city council's Great Neighborhoods Committee on the idea at its meeting Wednesday at noon at the Government Center.

On Wednesday, Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles said she supports efforts to limit housing discrimination based on a person’s criminal record.

Speaking on WFAE’s Charlotte Talks, Lyles said it’s one of the “toughest” problems the city must address. She said her thoughts on the subject were formed in part by a conversation she had with a former inmate who now works for the city’s solid waste department.

"He said, you know, I’ve done time. He’s got a job. He’s got health insurance. He can’t get to visit his children overnight because he doesn’t have a place to live. He can’t - he has to provide a safe place. And he has been prevented from being able to rent someplace because of his record. That’s not right," Lyles said.

The mayor said the city could consider updating its fair housing ordinance, though she admitted she wasn’t sure “how much of a difference it would make” without the state lawmakers rewriting the law to explicitly ban housing protections based on a person’s criminal history. She also noted that it can be difficult for people to prove they were denied housing because of their criminal record. Regardless, she said she hoped the city would come up with some sort of solution.

“I don’t know the method that we can do it, but it’s something that we as a community need to do,” Lyles said.

We've Paid Our Debt

Dandridge is now married and owns a home with his wife. He said if it weren't for her, he would still be struggling to get housing in his own name.

"Once you serve your time, they say that you've paid a debt to society, that you should be released and returned to the community so that you can reintegrate, and become successful and a productive member of the community. And that's not always the case," Dandridge said.

"And as it relates to housing, it's more than not the case. It's actually the antithesis of what they say about having served your debt to society."

As many as one-third of U.S. adults have some kind of criminal record, according to the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development. That includes about 55,000 people in Charlotte, according to the Reentry Housing Alliance.

Experts say stable housing is a key ingredient in helping former prisoners to reintegrate into society.

In 2016, HUD issued guidance that warned housing providers that while the law doesn't specifically bar discrimination on the basis of a criminal record, they could be liable if they consistently reject one kind of applicant over others, such as people of color.

WFAE reporter Nick de la Canal contributed to this article.