The Silent Barrier: The Fight Against Housing Discrimination

The Silent Barrier: The Fight Against Housing Discrimination


April celebrates Fair Housing month, honoring the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968. The landmark Act prohibits any form of discrimination barring individuals from housing based on race, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and familial status. The main goal of the Fair Housing Act is to provide equal access to housing; however, a large number of people, specifically justice-involved individuals, still face housing discrimination today.  

Housing discrimination remains a consistent issue for justice-involved individuals, and it can take on many forms. Tabber Benedict, the Housing Advocate at Fortune, explains from his own experience what housing discrimination can look like.  

“Usually, people come to me and they’ve gotten a denial form that says it’s based on criminal justice involvement or justice history. Others come to me saying they inquired about an apartment saying it’s available, and they get no return calls, no return messages, and so they’re being ghosted,” said Tabber.  

Many methods of housing discrimination involve some form of silence, also known as “ghosting.” One may also see landlords or housing developers dissuade justice-involved individuals who may be using vouchers and other sources of income, or raise the cost of the rent. Although these forms of housing discrimination are fairly common and illegal, they are subtle and can often be overlooked. Some individuals may not be aware that they are facing housing discrimination.  

“A lot of times, people may not know because of the silent barriers, and people aren’t fully educated about the fact that this is discriminatory,” explained Tabber. “This has a disparate effect on people of color, and it’s used in a way that perpetuates segregation and keeps people out of neighborhoods and certain buildings.” 

In New York City, 750,000 people currently have a conviction record, and 80% of New York City residents with a justice history are Black or Latinx. As a result, housing discrimination seems to disproportionately impact communities of color. Alison Wilkey, the head of the Fair Chance for Housing campaign, explains that for those with a justice history, there is a stigma that can prevent them from accessing necessary resources like housing.

“They’re facing lifetime consequences; they’re facing doors closed at every turn of their life because they carry that stigma of the conviction record."

“And the fact is, we all make mistakes and we all do stupid things and sometimes harmful things, but we can’t expect to move forward without people being able to leave that stigma behind them,” said Alison.   

With so many vulnerable individuals facing housing discrimination, Fortune and other organizations are advocating for the passage of the Fair Chance for Housing Act (FCFHA) in New York City to further protect those with justice histories from facing housing discrimination based on a criminal conviction.  

The Fair Chance for Housing campaign is a coalition of advocates and organizations co-led by Fortune that pushes for passage of the FCFHA and equal access to housing for justice-involved people. The FCFHA would prohibit housing providers from performing criminal background checks or requesting any information regarding someone’s arrest or conviction record during the application process. It also prohibits denying someone housing or taking adverse action based on one’s justice history.

“Background checks give us one thing that a person did at one time, and I don’t think any of us are defined by a particular moment in life. Humans have an incredible capacity to grow and change, we all grow and change throughout our lives. Background checks are never able to capture that,” said Alison 

Alison started working with Fair Chance for Housing when she noticed the barriers justice-involved individuals faced when seeking higher education and career opportunities. A lack of safe and stable housing seemed to restrict them from these opportunities. To address the needs of these individuals, the Fair Chance for Housing team gathered community experiences. Alison believes it’s important to amplify the voices of those facing housing discrimination and to ensure that these individuals have someone to advocate for them.  

“Part of what we’re trying to do with the campaign is give people who have experienced this a voice and try to change the world and the issue they face over and over again."

Our advocacy provides a space for people to know that it isn’t just them, that this happens to a lot of people, that this is something that the 750,000 New Yorkers who have a conviction all face,” says Alison. 

At Fortune, Tabber works closely with participants who come to him with any concerns. Much of the housing advocacy at Fortune involves education and teaching individuals how to advocate for themselves when necessary. If there is evidence of housing discrimination, Fortune is also able to advocate on their behalf and pursue further action.  

“When we are doing this outreach, we are pushing for public policy changes in the law. That’s the final way that we do public policy advocacy, meaning we see evidence of the problems and then we provide services to help those problems,” said Tabber.  

At Fortune and through the Fair Chance for Housing campaign, pushing for changes in policy is necessary to improve the situations of justice-involved individuals. It is important that those with justice histories are aware of the discrimination they could face and that they are connected with the right resources to help them during the housing process. Without the safety of a home, an individual’s path to successful reentry is extremely difficult. Housing is a human right, and allowing justice-involved people equal access to safe and stable housing strengthens our communities and makes us all safer. 

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