Landlords with a blanket policy of denying housing to people with criminal records may be in violation of the Fair Housing Act, according to new guidance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The guidance is largely consistent with what the industry has been talking about for a long time, according to Amy Glassman, an attorney with the Ballard Spahr law firm in Washington, D.C.

Owners have to be careful and thoughtful in their screenings when they are using criminal background checks so their policies don’t have an unnecessary discriminatory effect.

“It’s a hard balance,” Glassman told AHF. “Both owners and residents of apartment complexes have a legitimate interest in ensuring they live in a safe environment. There are certain criminal backgrounds indicative of past violent behavior or behavior that might take away from the safety of the residents. In that situation, I think the owners have legitimate needs to use criminal convictions to screen, but they also have to be very thoughtful about it.”

“They need to look at the severity or nature of crimes, how recently they were committed, and whether applicants have taken subsequent steps that might negate the effects of the convictions,” said Glassman.