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Faculty Center Stage: Anna Reosti

Anna Reosti on the water

Anna Reosti

I’m a postdoctoral fellow in Law & Inequality here in the Center for Legal Studies. My teaching and research interests lie at the intersection of housing, criminal justice, and civil rights policies. I came to Northwestern this autumn after earning my PhD in Sociology from the University of Washington in Seattle, though I’m originally from Detroit.  

Q:          Tell us about your dissertation project.

My dissertation explores the consequences of tougher background screening practices for rental housing access and discrimination, particularly for prospective tenants with stigmatizing background records like criminal convictions, evictions and damaged credit. I also investigate the capacity of new civil rights policies to meaningfully expand rental housing access by regulating how landlords screen prospective tenants, such as “Ban-the-Box” or “Fair Chance” policies that restrict how landlords can screen applicants on the basis of criminal history. I used a mixed-methods research design that included an online field experiment and a qualitative case study of tenant screening practices in Seattle. The experiment measured how landlords respond to emails from fictitious prospective applicants who disclosed having either an eviction or criminal conviction record in messages inquiring about an advertised rental unit’s availability and screening criteria, compared to a control scenario in which no background issues were mentioned. The names of the applicants were also manipulated to signal their race and gender in order to evaluate the impact of those variables on response patterns. The experiment reached just over 1,800 rental housing providers advertising online in five metropolitan areas (Seattle, Portland, Detroit, Philadelphia and Atlanta). In order to delve more deeply into relevant actors’ experiences with and perspectives on tenant background screening, I conducted forty-seven in-depth interviews with Seattle area landlords, property managers, and rental industry lobbyists as well as renters with criminal conviction records, past evictions and/or damaged credit histories who had recently searched for housing.

Q: What were your main findings?

In line with existing research documenting landlords’ aversion to tenants with tarnished background records, landlords in the online field experiment were significantly less likely to respond to rental inquiries from fictitious applicants when they disclosed possessing a criminal conviction or eviction record (relative to the control scenario). I also found that landlords were significantly less likely to respond to emails from female applicants disclosing an eviction history when those messages were sent from accounts linked to distinctively black rather than white names. The latter finding is consistent with sociological studies of labor market discrimination, including Devah Pager’s research on criminal records and race in hiring, that suggest black applicants are disproportionately penalized for possessing an ostensibly race-neutral discrediting background credential.

My qualitative findings document the acute and multifaceted challenges that renters with stigmatizing background records encounter when trying to secure housing in a very competitive rental market like Seattle’s. For many of the renters I interviewed, the housing search process was a prolonged and costly one despite efforts to strategically limit their searches to the independent or “mom & pop” sector of the rental market in which landlords are thought to exercise more flexible screening criteria. Findings from my interviews with independent landlords and property managers confirmed that assumption - those respondents reported exercising considerable discretion when it came to screening and selecting tenants. However, my findings also suggest that a tight rental market reduces the likelihood that landlords will exercise their discretion to open their doors to “imperfect” rental applicants given ample opportunities to select tenants with spotless backgrounds and/or higher incomes. Under such conditions, the broad discretion enjoyed by landlords may simply reinforce their power to choose the tenants they prefer, rather than meaningfully improve the housing prospects of renters with tarnished backgrounds.

Q:          What are some of the policy implications of your research?

In the context of a nationwide rental unaffordability and insecurity crisis, urban policymakers have been repurposing civil rights laws to combat housing exclusion on the bases of status characteristics like source-of-income and criminal history. High-cost cities like San Francisco, Washington D.C. and Seattle have been on the forefront of this type of policy innovation. In 2017 Seattle enacted the nation’s most far-reaching “Fair Chance” policy for rental housing, which prohibits landlords from screening applicants on the basis of criminal history in most circumstances. My research doesn’t bear directly on the efficacy of this policy approach since I collected my qualitative data prior to the law’s implementation, but it does illuminate some of the practical challenges associated with regulating private landlords’ screening practices in the context of a very competitive rental market like Seattle’s. For instance, a tight rental market facilitates strategies that some of my respondents said they planned to adopt to retain their discretionary powers in the face of Seattle’s new tenant screening regulations, such as ratcheting up credit and income-related admissions criteria. The more important implication I draw from my research, however, is that the barriers to housing that renters with stigmatizing background records encounter in the “information age” cannot be understood separately from broader features of the national housing policy regime in which the public sector takes a backseat to the provision of housing for vulnerable populations. That system leaves most low-income renters, including voucher recipients and those with stigmatizing backgrounds, at the mercy of private landlords who have little incentive in a tight housing market to open their doors to prospective tenants they deem risky or undesirable. In that sense my research underscores the policy imperative to increase the supply of permanently affordable, nonmarket housing in order to reduce the degree to which the housing security of stigmatized renters is tied to the difficult to surveil and regulate practices of for-profit landlords.

Q:          How have you enjoyed teaching in Legal Studies at NU?  How do NU students compare to University of Washington students?

Yes, immensely! My students’ deep and thoughtful engagement with the material in both of my courses (Civil Rights and the Criminal Justice System, Housing Law and Inequality) has truly helped me think about my own work in new ways. In particular, the discussions I’ve had with students in class and during office hours this year have expanded my political imagination when it comes to how to transform our criminal justice and housing systems. The most striking similarity between students at NU and UW is the extent of their real-world engagement with the issues we discuss in my classes. One of the most gratifying aspects of teaching at both institutions has been chatting with current or former students about the connections they draw between course material and their work outside the university in related fields, such as fair housing advocacy or criminal justice reform.

Q:          We understand you are already leaving NU!  Tell us about your plans going forward.

In September I will start a new position as a research professor at the American Bar Foundation in Chicago. I am very excited about the opportunities this position will afford me to extend my research agenda by turning my attention to housing inequality in Chicago. I am also thrilled that it means I’ll be staying in town and can continue to be part of Legal Studies’ intellectual community.


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