Lousiana housing advocacy group files lawsuit alleging discrimination against Black renters

The Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center claims that a housing property's refusal to rent to people with criminal records is discriminatory.

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The Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center is suing two prominent New Orleans real estate developers, alleging that their policy of not renting to people with criminal records is discriminatory. 

According to a report from NOLA.com, Azalea Gardens Property LLC, a large suburban development owned by Lou Lauricella and Sidney Lassen, has a blanket ban against renting to people with criminal records. 

The Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center says the refusal of the developers at Azalea Gardens Property LLC to rent to people with past criminal records discriminates against Blacks. (Photo: Screenshot/ApartmentGuide.com)

The advocacy group alleges that the ban is discriminatory to African Americans in violation of federal law. 

According to the report, the group sent undercover prospective renters to Azalea Gardens, where staff members told them that their application screening process made no distinctions with regard to the severity or timing of renters’ criminal records. 

The computerized application scans for any arrests or convictions, including misdemeanors, and goes back at least five years in the applicant’s past. The Fair Housing Action Center alleges that the application violates federal law. 

Changes to the rules by HUD in 2016 restrict landlords from having such blanket bans on renting to people with criminal records, a policy they determined was tantamount to racial discrimination. This lawsuit is reportedly the first of its kind since the rule change. However, landlords have pushed back, with some claiming that criminal background checks are for valid business purposes. 

Still, housing advocates continue to push for less restrictive background checks. 

Cashauna Hill, the executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, told NOLA.com, “It is long past time that the 49% of Louisiana adults with arrest or conviction records have a fair chance at a place to call home.” 

Lawyers for the apartment complex have moved to have the case dismissed, saying that the lawsuit is based solely on statements by staff members and not Azalea Gardens’ written policy. 

However, NOLA.com notes that LaFHAC made 50 site visits to numerous apartment complexes in the state with undercover operatives, and they found Blacks were discriminated against as much as 50% of the time. 

A similar case was referred to HUD, where it went through a lengthy arbitration and ultimately a settlement. The Azalea Gardens case was sent to the state’s attorney general, which did not move forward with action, prompting the LaFHAC lawsuit. It was filed based on a theory called “disparate impact,” where rules that do not seem discriminatory on their face can have a discriminatory result. 

A 2015 Supreme Court ruling came down in favor of the “disparate impact” theory, though it limited its application. New HUD rules after the case placed precedent on practical business, profit and policy considerations that may outweigh the disparate impact claims, according to The JD Supra Knowledge Center.

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