Finding Housing with a Criminal Record

Authored By: Iowa Legal Aid

Finding Housing Is a Concern for Those with a Criminal Record

A past criminal case can make it hard to find housing. Many landlords will not rent to someone with a criminal record.

  • Public housing agencies have policies that screen out people with certain criminal records too.
  • Federal law has rules for companies that screen tenants.
  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has found that sometimes the screening policies to deny a person housing due to a criminal record may violate the Fair Housing Act (FHA). 

Access to Criminal Records

  • Landlords have ways to see a future tenant’s criminal history. Iowa posts court records online. 
  • These records generally include all crimes ever charged in Iowa – even if a person was found not guilty or the case was dismissed. 
  • There are also private companies that screen tenants.
  • The reports made by these companies have information on a person’s credit history, rental history, and criminal record.

What to Do About Errors in Criminal Background Screenings

If you are denied housing based on a criminal background screening, ask for a copy of the criminal record. 

  • You need this information to find out if the report is correct.  
  • Often criminal background checks have inaccurate or incomplete information.

If you have been a victim of an inaccurate criminal background check, you have a remedy.

  • The Fair Credit Report Act (FCRA) applies to companies that provide tenant screening services.
  • The FCRA requires the tenant screening services to provide copies of the information about a person if the person asks for it.
  • Review the copy and you will know if the information is correct or not. 
  • If there is incorrect or misleading information on the report or important information is missing, you should immediately notify the company that produced the background check.
  • When the company receives notice that you disagree with the report, it is required to start an investigation to determine whether or not the information is correct.
  • Within 30 days of being notified of incorrect information in the report, the company must erase the errors from its files.
  • If the company does not remove errors from the report, the FCRA gives you the right to sue the company for money.

Criminal Background Checks and the Fair Housing Act (FHA)

The FHA says a landlord cannot refuse to rent to a person on the basis of the person’s race, religion, sex, familial status or national origin.

  • Under certain circumstances, the FHA may also stop a landlord from doing something that creates a major burden for one particular group of people.
  • HUD published a memo warning landlords that it may violate the FHA if a landlord refuses to rent to a person because that person has a criminal conviction on his or her record, regardless of:
  1. when the conviction occurred,
  2. the nature of the criminal offense, or
  3. what the convicted person has done since.  

HUD explained that across the country, African Americans and Latinos are convicted and jailed at higher rates than anyone else. So, if a landlord has a policy to not rent to people with any past criminal conviction, a landlord is creating a major burden for African Americans and Latinos.

Access to Federal Funded Housing Programs

For people who have been charged or convicted of a crime in the past, acceptance to a government-funded housing program can sometimes be difficult.  

  • Public housing agencies have criminal background policies. 
  • These policies determine whether someone is eligible based on his/her background. 
  • Federal law requires some criminal background restrictions.  
  • Many restrctions are imposed by the public housing agency.
  • Federal law limits the types of criminal activity for which you can be denied housing benefits.
  • In general, a public housing agency can refuse a person based on past criminal conduct for:
  1. drug related criminal offenses,
  2. violent criminal offense,
  3. offenses that result in a person being place on a sex-offender registry, or
  4. criminal activity that threatens the health or safety of the management or other tenants.

A public housing agency can only deny participation if the criminal offense occurred within a reasonable period of time before admission to the housing program. 

The law does not define how many months or years is a “reasonable period of time,”It should have some connection to the seriousness of the charge and the circumstances of your case. 

  • Different public housing authorities have different policies. 
  • The public housing agency must consider your particular circumstances when deciding what constitutes a reasonable period of time. 
  • Often, the public housing authority will simply say that someone is disqualified for a certain number of years for certain types of crimes for example, for a misdemeanor or a felony.
  • You may be able to challenge a denial if the public housing authority’s policy is not reasonable.
  • Although you don’t need a conviction to be denied, an arrest alone is not enough.

 If you have been denied housing assistance, or denied on a rental application, call Iowa Legal Aid to learn your rights in this matter.  

If Iowa Legal Aid cannot help, look for an attorney on “Find A Lawyer” on the Iowa State Bar Association website   A private attorney there can talk with you for a fee of $25 for 30 minutes of legal advice.
*As you read this information, remember this article is not a substitute for legal advice. 
  • Iowa Legal Aid provides help to low-income Iowans. 
    • To apply for help from Iowa Legal Aid:call 800-532-1275. 
    • Iowans age 60 and over, call 800-992-8161 or 
    • apply online at
Last Review and Update: Jan 17, 2024
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