“Fair Chance Housing” is “Ban the Box” for Tenants—with Exceptions

Mayor Ed Murray and city council member Lisa Herbold released a draft of legislation earlier today aimed at making it easier for people with criminal records to find housing by barring landlords from requesting information about most kinds of criminal convictions. The legislation, which is certain to be challenged by the city’s vocal landlord lobby, is aimed at addressing one of the key challenges people with criminal histories face when trying to rebuild their lives—many landlords use criminal records to weed out applicants—one reason, Herbold said, that an average of 85 people exit jail directly into homelessness in Washington State every month.

“This is about addressing a homelessness crisis that we have partially created ourselves,” Herbold said.

And yet, the bill undermines those premises in a couple of ways. First, it exempts small landlords—those with four units or fewer, including backyard cottages or basement apartments—if they live on the premises. This suggests that, despite all those whereases, that people with criminal histories are somehow dangerous—after all, the legislation explicitly protects landlords from having to live next to them.

The legislation would prohibit landlords from advertising that they don’t accept tenants with criminal records, and would bar them from asking prospective tenants about convictions that are more than two years old, juvenile records, convictions that have been expunged, criminal charges that did not result in a conviction, or pending charges. It would allow landlords to refuse to rent to someone on the state sex-offender registry.

“Fair-chance” housing legislation was one of the recommendations proposed as part of the the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) back in 2015, and is of a piece with other proposals to reduce recidivism and homelessness among people, primarily men of color, who have served their sentences. “Ban the Box” legislation that passed in 2013 prohibits employers from asking prospective hires about their criminal records during their initial employment screening.

The proposal includes nearly five pages of “whereas” clauses enumerating the reasons for the bill, including the fact that nearly one in three adults in the US has a criminal record; studies showing that people with stable housing are less likely to reoffend; the existence of persistent racial bias in both criminal justice and housing; and the fact that “there is no sociological research establishing a relationship between a criminal record and an unsuccessful tenancy.”

And yet, the bill undermines those premises in a couple of ways. First, it exempts small landlords—those with four units or fewer, including backyard cottages or basement apartments—if they live on the premises. This suggests that, despite all those whereases, that people with criminal histories are somehow dangerous—after all, the legislation explicitly protects landlords from having to live next to them.

Second, by requiring prospective tenants to run out a two-year clock before they can benefit from the bill’s protections, the legislation could set up some people with recent criminal history to fail (and reoffend); after all, as one of those “whereas” clauses says, “research shows higher recidivism occurs within the first two years of release and is mitigated when individuals have access to safe and affordable housing and employment.”

When I asked Murray why the bill includes so many exemptions, he said, “There are disagreements over the number of years, how far you should go back, that we have not been able to reach agreement with landlords on. There’s some challenges for us to meet all of their concerns.” Then he kicked the question over to Office for Civil Rights policy manager Brenda Anibarro, who said, “that two-year [exemption] was an attempt to address some of [landlords’] concerns … We had participated in [the outreach] process for a straight year. We wanted to give them something on that. So that’s where that two year lookback comes from, and the same with the exemptions.”

One issue the legislation does not address is how people coming out of prison will be able to afford housing in Seattle even if they are no longer hindered by their criminal history. Advocates are trying to convince King County to add another three cents to the Veterans, Seniors, and Human Services levy, on the countywide ballot in November, to fund affordable housing for people with criminal convictions as well as active drug users.

Herbold was the only council member present at today’s press conference, which was held on Murray’s turf—the 7th-floor Norm B. Rice conference room on the 7th floor of City Hall. Asked whether she had the votes to pass the “fair-chance” legislation, Herbold said she hadn’t done a vote count yet; “I would not let having five votes be a prerequisite for the mayor sending the bill down,” she said.

Herbold’s Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic Development, and Arts committee will hold a public hearing on the legislation at City Hall on July 13 at 5pm.

3 thoughts on ““Fair Chance Housing” is “Ban the Box” for Tenants—with Exceptions

  1. Pingback: Thursday news roundup

  2. On a related HALA/housing note:
    Please see information at the link below regarding financial situations for those citizens who follow Sharia law.
    http://www.seattle.gov/hala/faq#What is the goal?

    Why is Seattle entering/counseling in the arena of financing for these citizens? They are bringing some good values and energy to the area, but why?
    What about the separation of church and State?
    Why isn’t the Muslim community standing up and supporting/creating their own banking system/loan institution so these citizens can purchase a home according to the religious laws they follow if they are unable to do it through the existing institutions?
    (Apologies for commenting on a related topic, but I couldn’t find a link to contact you directly.)

    Like

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