NYU Law civil rights org fights Fla. housing discrimination

A group of students and faculty at NYU’s School of Law are calling for the end of the Crime Free Multi-Housing Program in Tampa, Florida, which disproportionately targets people of color.

The+view+of+downtown+Tampa+from+the+Hillsborough+River.+NYU+Law%E2%80%99s+Civil+Rights+Clinic+and+other+civil+rights+organizations+are+calling+for+the+city+of+Tampa+to+end+the+Crime+Free+Multi-Housing+Program%2C+which+they+say+disproportionately+harms+people+of+color.+%28Photo+by+Ari+Solomon%29

Ari Solomon

The view of downtown Tampa from the Hillsborough River. NYU Law’s Civil Rights Clinic and other civil rights organizations are calling for the city of Tampa to end the Crime Free Multi-Housing Program, which they say disproportionately harms people of color. (Photo by Ari Solomon)

By Meghana Kakubal, Contributing Writer

Seven civil rights organizations, including NYU Law’s Civil Rights Clinic, the NAACP and the ACLU, have signed a petition calling for the mayor and city council of Tampa, Florida, to end a controversial residential program that they say disproportionately targets people of color. 

The petition, addressed to Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and the Tampa Council, seeks to terminate the Crime-Free Multi Housing Program. According to the Tampa Police Department, the program was established in 2013 to eliminate drugs and illegal activity on rental properties.

Under the program, landlords are trained to screen prospective tenants, their guests and their families for criminal history and potentially evict them from their apartments. A Tampa Bay Times investigation found that roughly 90% of the 1,100 individuals flagged were Black, and three-quarters of the apartment complexes enrolled in the program were in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

“By training landlords to conduct unnecessary and overly broad criminal-history screenings of prospective tenants and pressuring landlords to evict certain tenants, the Tampa Police Department perpetuates a program that disproportionately targets and excludes tenants of color and their families,” the petition reads.

NYU Law students Justin McCarroll and Nathan Lee, who are student advocates at NYU’s Civil Rights Clinic, are actively working with local and national chapters of the NAACP and the ACLU to campaign against the program in Tampa.

“They’re removing people and saying they’re removing crime,” Lee said. “It’s treating an entire family as a source of crime, which is not how crimes work. Human beings are totally capable of changing, and just because one person did something once, it does not mean that they will continue to cause crimes. Equating the act with the person is also not right.”

McCarroll said that the lack of oversight in the housing program allows Tampa to evade the Fair Housing Act, a federal law preventing landlords from racially discriminating against tenants.

“The best way to make change happen in this situation is for the city council to get involved to produce an ordinance against it,” McCarroll said. “Most legal issues actually don’t get settled in court. It’s a lot of negotiating, it’s educating and it’s having conversations with communities to figure out what’s best for them.”

Since the petition was published, authorities in Tampa have ordered that police provide data to justify the need for the program. Councilmembers also asked the interim police chief, Ruben “Butch” Delgado, to report back on Dec. 2 to describe how police intend to proceed when it comes to notifying landlords.

Lee said NYU’s Civil Rights Clinic and the other signatories want to see a concrete plan detailing how authorities in Tampa will make permanent changes for the future.

“They told everybody that they’re willing to make changes and will make changes,” Lee said. “How are they going to address the problem that they already caused and the harm that was furthered by their program?”

Deborah Archer, the NYU Law professor leading the Civil Rights Clinic and the ACLU’s national board president, wrote in a statement to WSN that the clinic often partners with other civil rights organizations around the country. In addition to crime-free housing, the clinic is taking on cases regarding New York City school segregation, employment discrimination and infrastructure development destroying Black communities.

“For the last few years, the Civil Rights Clinic has partnered with the National NAACP to identify and challenge some of the most discriminatory and outrageous ‘crime-free housing’ programs and ordinances around the country,” Archer wrote. “It stems from our shared interests in preserving equal access to housing and stopping the steady expansion of the reach of policing into other systems.”

Inspired by his involvement with the Tampa initiative, Lee hopes that other NYU students and community members will become involved in ending programs like Crime-Free Multi Housing in their own neighborhoods.

“Think about where home is for you and see if there’s programs like this,” Lee said. “I thought about where I’m from, generally in the Southern California area, and there are places that have crime-free housing that I was shocked to learn [about]. It can be very eye-opening to see that there can be these kinds of programs that operate in the background unless you are a direct victim of them.”

A version of this story appeared in the Oct. 4, 2021, e-print edition. Contact Meghana Kakubal at [email protected]