Beyond Fair Housing: Increasing Access for Renters Through Expungement
/ Blog Post
By Emily Blackshire and Sloan Wilson, 2022 Equal Justice Works Fellows who serve in the Housing Justice Program. Emily and Sloan are hosted by South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center.
In every crevice of her home, there were cockroaches. There were leaks in the walls, holes in the ceiling, and sewage in the bathtub. She was still paying $750 each month in rent alone, and with an outdated and faulty electrical system, she was also paying upwards of $1500 a month in combined rent and utilities.
Like many other renters, Ms. R’s housing options were limited because, in her words, she had “no other choice.” She had an eviction filed against her a decade earlier, and despite the charge being dismissed by the landlord prior to her court date, it was still appearing on tenant record checks performed by prospective landlords. In spite of steady employment for years and a clean rental record, she also had a low credit score that would bar her from rental properties with credit checks in the application. She had a partner with a minor criminal history, removing the option of using his better credit or eviction-less record to secure an apartment. And she was a Black woman in South Carolina.
Fair Housing is a term that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s as a part of the “open housing” movement that sought to open exclusionary white neighborhoods to residents of color and ultimately resulted in the codification of the Fair Housing Act in 1968. When we talk about Fair Housing, historically we have referred to de facto segregation as a means of excluding residents based on their race, color, religion, gender, disability, or family status. But often, the reason we see low-income people of color excluded from housing is more nuanced than explicit bigotry in their landlord’s tenant selection. Across South Carolina, we hear reports of tenants unable to secure a place to live simply because an eviction was filed against them at some point, regardless of whether a writ of ejectment is formally signed finalizing their eviction.
While conversations about Fair Housing aren’t historically tied to credit scores, eviction records, or criminal records, these experiences…are explicit barriers to housing that is safe, fair, and affordable.
South Carolina Appleseed is a legal justice center that focuses on policy and advocacy work for low-income South Carolinians. While we don’t directly represent clients in court; we work with communities directly to ensure that we can advocate for what legislative changes would benefit our neighbors. Time and time again, the communities we work with report barriers to housing that are tethered to their status in protected classes, but indirectly. And while conversations about Fair Housing aren’t historically tied to credit scores, eviction records, or criminal records, these experiences, disproportionately reflective of class and race, are explicit barriers to housing that is safe, fair, and affordable.
To even the playing field for our neighbors, we need to advocate for policies that allow for eviction record sealing and expungements of past evictions.
In our conversations about increasing Fair Housing, we encourage discourse about the underlying barriers to housing, too. In order to even the playing field for our neighbors, we need to advocate for policies that allow for eviction record sealing and expungements of past evictions. We must advocate for the right to counsel in eviction proceedings and eviction diversion programs that prevent these marks on tenant records in the first place. We must advocate for units with reasonable accommodations for tenants with disabilities and hold landlords who fail to meet the needs of disabled residents accountable. We must stay vigilant about potential Fair Housing violations, including discrimination through criminal arrest data and credit scores alike. And overall, we must take care of our neighbors and community members who all deserve safe, stable, affordable, and quality housing.
Our Equal Justice Works fellowships have allowed us to collaborate with tenants across the Midlands directly and regularly. From sharing about how the eviction filed against them kept them from safe, stable housing, to how an attorney at their court date could have kept them in their home, the tenants we get to work with guide each decision we make and each policy we ultimately choose to pursue. EJW has granted us the chance to both plug in with these tenants and to be a part of a multi-state network of like-minded attorneys and organizers working toward similar goals. Through these collaborations, both with tenants in our area and with other EJW fellows, we are equipped with invaluable context to hopefully, eventually shape housing policy across South Carolina.
The Housing Justice Program is creating a pipeline of passionate public service leaders who are advancing the ideals of fair housing. Visit here to read more stories about the work of our Fellows and how they are advocating for policies and practices that protect the rights of all tenants.
The Housing Justice Program is made possible thanks to the generosity of The JPB Foundation, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Abell Foundation, Maryland Legal Services Corporation, and Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina.