This week, NDS Harlem’s Sara Wolkensdorfer submitted written testimony to the New York City Council on the need to end discriminatory background checks in public housing.

Read Sara’s statement below:

The New York City Counsel Committee on General Welfare Jointly with the Committee on Civil and Human Rights

Statement by Sara Wolkesdorfer, Supervising Attorney, NDS Civil Defense Practice

The Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem (“NDS”) is a community-based public defender office that provides high-quality legal services to residents of Harlem and Northern Manhattan.  Since 1990, NDS has been working to improve the quality and depth of criminal and civil defense representation for those unable to afford an attorney through holistic, cross-practice representation.  Consistent with our expanded approach, NDS’s Civil Defense Practice represents tenants in all matters of housing defense.

Through our criminal defense practice and community intake, the Civil Defense Practice frequently represents individuals at risk of losing, or unable to find, stable housing due to criminal record screening by housing providers.  Our clients are rarely, if ever, afforded the opportunity to defend themselves against these discriminatory practices; the stigmatization and prolonged punishment surrounding their conviction histories continue for months, years, and even decades after having served their time.

For example, consider the following:  an NDS client, unable to afford a market rate apartment, applies for an affordable housing apartment.  The client’s application is denied after a private background check shows two recent convictions.  To make matters worse, the criminal record reporting agency misreported the dispositions of each case – both cases actually ended in non-criminal violations that should not have come up on a private background check.  Since there is no current law protecting individuals with conviction histories from the discriminatory use of background checks by housing providers, the client’s only recourse is to correct the misreporting with the criminal record reporting agency and inform the housing provider once the correction is made.  By the time this correct is made, however, it is too late, and the client’s opportunity for stable housing is lost.

This scenario plays out every single day in Harlem, Manhattan, and every other borough of the City of New York.  Individuals, families, and entire communities, largely low-income and/or black, indigenous, and people of color, face conviction history discrimination and end up in unstable housing or worse, homeless.  Lack of stable housing makes it harder for individuals and families to break out of generational poverty, negatively impacts physical and mental health, and often requires families to separate.  The classist and racist implications of using background checks to discriminate against individuals with conviction histories are endless.  

NDS proudly supports the actions of the Fair Chance for Housing Coalition in recognizing and demanding that all New Yorkers be given a chance to have stable and affordable housing.  Eliminating housing providers’ use of background checks and prohibiting blanket bans on individuals with conviction histories will strengthen anti-discrimination laws and give individuals with conviction histories the opportunity they were promised upon release – a chance for their conviction to be a part of their history, so that they can create their own future free of discriminatory restraints.  NDS believes in affordable housing for all New Yorkers and calls for an end to the discriminatory use of background checks.