The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), and the Legal Action Center (LAC) are suing Ronald McDonald House Charities and its Hudson Valley chapter, for not providing discounted housing to people with felony assault convictions, a policy they say is a violation of the Fair Housing Act and New York human rights law.
“Government agencies have long warned housing providers that unjustified and unnecessary blanket bans from housing based on criminal history disproportionately harm Black and Latine people and are unlawful,” said Amanda Meyer, an ACLU attorney in a press release.
Ronald McDonald House Charities, a non-profit partially funded by but distinct from the McDonald’s fast food company, runs Ronald McDonald Houses on or near hospital campuses across the country, where families with children undergoing longer-term hospitalizations can stay for a nominal sum.
The ACLU, NYCLU, and LAC are suing on behalf of New York resident Juan Mieles, whose application to stay at a Ronald McDonald House was rejected because of his criminal history.
Mieles had applied to stay at the Ronald McDonald House at the Westchester Medical Center—where his 17-year-old son was receiving cancer treatments—back in 2022. The charity rejected his application after a criminal background check turned up a 12-year-old felony assault conviction, for which he’d been incarcerated.
Mieles tried to appeal the decision, stressing the time since his conviction and the role he played in his son’s care, but the charity didn’t budge. Unable to stay at the Ronald McDonald House, Mieles instead had to drive an hour one-way from his home in Queens during his son’s six-week cancer treatment course.
The Ronald McDonald House Charities didn’t respond to Reason‘s request for comment.
His lawsuit describes this as a hardship for Mieles and his family. The complaint argues that blanket bans on people with criminal convictions are illegal under the federal Fair Housing Act.
The federal Fair Housing Act bans racial discrimination in housing provision. Subsequent fair housing case law and federal regulations have widened the definition of racial discrimination to include neutral policies that have a “disparate impact” or “discriminatory effect” on particular racial groups.
The ACLU and co. argue in their lawsuit that the Ronald McDonald House Charities’ policy on criminal convictions violates this disparate impact standard, given the higher rates at which black and “Latine” individuals are convicted of crimes.
Their lawsuit cites 2022 regulatory guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) saying that blanket bans on people with criminal convictions can violate the Fair Housing Act. HUD says that housing providers’ criminal conviction policies should, at a minimum, give room for individual assessment of the circumstances of the crime and the time elapsed since the crime.
Critics have long argued that the disparate impact standard often leaves housing providers guessing at what policies of theirs might end up being illegal.
“There’s no way to really know that you’re going to be facing potential liability down the road,” Ethan Blevins, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, told Reason last year. “It does put landlords in a really tough position, and it’s tough to know what a court will find legitimate.”
The ACLU and other fair housing groups have filed several lawsuits against housing providers for maintaining policies they say have illegal disparate impacts. Last year, the ACLU, alongside several Illinois fair housing groups, sued a Chicago-area landlord for not renting to people with past evictions.
Their lawsuit against Ronald McDonald House Charities asks that Mieles be awarded compensatory and punitive damages and that the charity stop enforcing its criminal convictions policy.