Can algorithms violate fair housing laws?

When Carmen Arroyo asked her apartment’s management company in 2016 if her son, Mikhail, could move in with her after a bad accident left him unable to care for himself, herrequest was denied. A tenant-screening background check had dredged up a minor (and considering his current circumstances, irrelevant) shoplifting charge from Mikhail’s past.

This past month, a federal district court judge in Connecticut agreed to let Arroyo’s lawsuit against the screening company, CoreLogic, go to trial in what experts believe is the first case of its kind, targeting a screening company, rather than a landlord for housing discrimination. The decision was a victory for fair housing advocates who have argued that tenant screening services are error-prone, result in racial discrimination, and are largely unaccountable. But even as the case proceeds, the Trump administration is looking to make it more difficult to bring similar lawsuits in the future.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) finalized a change this month to rules governing how people make housing discrimination complaints to the agency and the rule is scheduled to be entered into the federal register Thursday. It raises the bar for people proving that they’ve been discriminated against, and gives housing providers—whether landlords, realtors, developers, insurers, or lenders—more ways to get those claims thrown out. For instance, critics say, the rule change effectively immunizes people and companies from discrimination charges if they use “profit” as a reason for their decision-making, or if they use third-party systems to choose tenants—as was the case in Arroyo’s rejected application for her son.

The change, in draft form, provoked a major controversy last year, flooding HUD with over 45,000 public comments. Advocates of both fair housing policies and algorithmic accountability were vocal in their dissent. Even mortgage lenders and realtors eventually distanced themselves from HUD’s proposal—some of them invoking this summer’s seeds of a national reckoning over systematic racism in America. FULL ARTICLE

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