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Originally published Thursday, April 4, 2013 at 9:12 PM

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ACLU files suit on behalf of woman denied rental over 1995 drug conviction

The ACLU of Washington is suing a tenant-screening company for using old criminal history records to deny a woman rental housing, in violation of state law.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Markeletta Wilson says she had been clean and sober for more than a decade when a rental-screening agency turned her down for a Tukwila apartment because of a 1995 drug conviction.

The ACLU of Washington on Thursday filed a lawsuit on her behalf, charging that the company that recommended rejecting her rental application violated a state law that forbids consumer-reporting agencies from using criminal convictions more than seven years old.

“I feel it is unfair to screen people out of housing because of mistakes from decades ago,” Wilson said at a news conference at the ACLU offices in Seattle.

Attorneys for the ACLU filed the lawsuit in King County Superior Court. They are seeking to have it certified as a class action and have asked for $1,000 in damages for each plaintiff who joins the suit.

Vanessa Hernandez, a staff attorney who heads the ACLU Second Chances project, said that dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of other people with old criminal convictions had been illegally denied housing in the state.

“Washington law limits the information companies can report so that people are not prevented from having a fair chance to make a fresh start,” Hernandez said.

More than 409,000 people in King County have criminal convictions and 114,000 people in Seattle have arrest records, according to city figures.

Kathleen Taylor, executive director of ACLU Washington, said she hopes the lawsuit will start a conversation about how the community treats people who have already paid their debt to society.

“We must let our fellow citizens get past their criminal records and re-engage in ways that will enhance their chances of success,” she said, “for their sakes and ours.”

According to the lawsuit, Wilson applied for rental housing in a Tukwila apartment complex in July 2012. The landlord used the services of RentGrow, which in 2010 was acquired by Yardi Systems, of California. The company provides rental-screening services around the country.

RentGrow issued a report that recommended denying the application because of Wilson’s drug-possession convictions from 1988 and 1995.

The lawsuit says that Wilson finally found an apartment, but it cost $200 a month more than the Tukwila unit and was farther from the workplace of her daughter, who planned to live with her.

An official with Yardi Systems said he didn’t know anything about the lawsuit and had not been contacted by the ACLU.

“We haven’t seen it. We’ll take a look,” said Gordon Morrell, chief operating officer.

Wilson was a plaintiff in another class-action lawsuit in 2009 against the Seattle Housing Authority. That suit accused the agency of failing to take into account residents’ disabilities or family circumstances before terminating a lease. The Housing Authority denied any illegal activity, but agreed to grant new termination hearings to the plaintiffs and to make reasonable accommodations for tenants with disabilities.

Unrelated to Wilson’s case, Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, also a candidate for mayor, has explored making it illegal for landlords and employers to use criminal history to deny applicants jobs or housing, if the crime is unrelated to the job or rental opportunity.

He said he hopes to introduce an employment bill in May that has the support of both business and social-justice advocates and argues giving a former felon a job aids in reducing recidivism.

On housing, he said tenant-screening agencies should have heightened reporting requirements so they don’t report convictions more than 7 years old.

“From the landlord’s standpoint, how can you ignore that information once it’s provided to you?” Harrell asked.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lthompsontimes

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