Yusuf Dahl was convicted of dealing drugs when he was 18 years old. Twenty-five years later that conviction is still blocking Dahl from housing opportunities.
That is because of the Thurmond Amendment, which Dahl is working to get overturned.
Introduced in the 1988 Fair Housing Amendments Act, the Thurmond Amendment creates a lifetime exemption from federal fair housing protections for individuals convicted of any drug distribution crime — no matter when the crime occurred or what the underlying conduct entailed.
As a former president of the Apartment Association of Southeastern Wisconsin, Dahl was well aware of the possibility that his rental application would be denied but still “shocked and heartbroken” to see it happen.
‘Nothing anyone could do’
“My prospective landlord exercised their legal right to discriminate against me for my prior conviction,” he said. “Had this been anyone else, they could have reached out to a fair housing council for help. But because my conviction was drug related, there was nothing anyone could do.”
Sharing his own story was his first step in trying to get the amendment overturned.
“When you think about the impact of the amendment, it begs the question: Why have folks not taken this on?”
Dahl said the answer is because the legislation affects “the more vulnerable people in our society.”
Since his conviction as a teen, Dahl has become a property owner, founder of the Real Estate Lab in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and board chair of the Petey Greene Program, a national prison education nonprofit.
Dahl said, at its core, overturning the Thurmond Amendment is an equity issue.
Born and raised in Milwaukee, Dahl spent time in juvenile detention as a child before turning his life around after being released from prison.
He attended UW-Milwaukee, founded Milwaukee Metro Management and served as the president of the Apartment Association of Southeastern Wisconsin before completing his degree in public policy through Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
“This is a piece of legislation that impacts over 9 million people in the country and has been limiting opportunity, geographically, as well as the social and economic opportunities,” he said. “Look at who proposed it.”
Dahl was referring to the late South Carolina GOP Sen. Strom Thurmond, a one-time segregationist who voted against the original Fair Housing Act, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Justice, 18,563 people were arrested for drug crimes in 2021, with 2,529 of them in Milwaukee.
A 2016 report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum shows that Black people bear the brunt of unequal drug enforcement laws.
The researchers found that although Black people comprise about 39% of the City of Milwaukee’s population, from 2012 to 2015, they were the subject of 72% of the 3,903 arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana when that was the sole charge
Hispanic people, who make up about 18% of the city’s population, accounted for 15% of the arrests, the report said.
“It’s a form of neo-redlining,” Dahl said, adding Thurmond has “achieved virtually the same end as racist practices before: Keeping minorities out of certain neighborhoods.”
Support from housing advocates
Milwaukee housing advocates have expressed support of Dahl’s efforts.
“We know that particular demographics are incarcerated more for these types of offenses,” said Robert Penner, an organizer of the Milwaukee Autonomous Tenants Union. “So, it’s exceptionally unfair to deprive these groups of housing.”
The Apartment Association of Southeastern Wisconsin is the first trade group to publicly support the cause.
“We’re supporting it because it makes no sense that the same amount of marijuana that is legal in a state over (Illinois) can get someone denied housing for the rest of their lives in Wisconsin,” said Tim Ballering, a board member of the group. “There are protections that allow people to work after a conviction but none that allows them somewhere to live.”
Ballering said his organization believes good tenants deserve good homes.
“None of us are the same person we were 25 years ago,” he said. “If a tenant qualifies for an apartment based on income, rental and credit history, they should not be denied housing simply because of a conviction from decades ago.”
Dahl is trying to rally legislators to overturn the amendment.
“I have not met one person yet, Democrat or Republican, that says that this makes sense,” he said. “It does nothing to make communities safer.”
For more information
Dahl has a documentary on the topic coming out soon and said people interested in the documentary or keeping up with the process of getting the amendment overturned can follow him on LinkedIn or on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter.