A California county has become the first in the nation to pass a law banning landlords from conducting criminal background checks on applicants, a significant move meant to curb housing discrimination against formerly incarcerated people.
The Alameda county board of supervisors in the San Francisco Bay Area voted Tuesday to adopt a Fair Chance housing ordinance, which would prohibit landlords in private and public housing from using criminal records when considering prospective tenants. While a few cities have passed similar measures, and at least two counties have adopted partial restrictions, Alameda is the first county in the US to broadly prohibit this practice, advocates say.
The Fair Chance law – passed with four yes votes and a fifth supervisor abstaining – also bans landlords from advertising that people with criminal histories shouldn’t apply, and it establishes that an individual with a criminal record can’t be banned from moving in with a family member. The law, which will require a second vote to be formally adopted, applies only to the unincorporated parts of the county, which include San Lorenzo, Castro Valley, Sunol, Fairview and Ashland; the cities of Oakland and Berkeley, which are part of Alameda county, previously passed municipal laws banning criminal background checks for housing.
The initiative is part of a growing movement in California and across the country to undo the harsh treatment of people with criminal records, with tens of millions of people in the US denied access to jobs, housing, benefits, education and other basic rights due to old convictions. In California, an estimated 8 million people have criminal records, roughly one in five residents. More than 5,000 people are on probation or parole in Alameda county.
The legislation also comes amid a worsening homelessness catastrophe in the state, which research suggests is exacerbated by the housing barriers people face when leaving prison. A University of California, Berkeley, survey in 2019 estimated that 73% of people living in Oakland encampments were formerly incarcerated, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Out of 9,700 unhoused people counted in Alameda county’s 2022 homelessness survey, 30% said they had experienced interactions with the criminal legal system in the past year, with 7% directly attributing their homelessness to incarceration.
“There is this direct pipeline from prison on to our streets and into homelessness,” said Margaretta Wan-Ling Lin, executive director of Just Cities, an organization that backed the ordinance. “Our nation is going through a reckoning around our history of racism and mass incarceration policies, and an important part of repairing that harm is removing the stigma and structural discrimination against people with a criminal record.”
When housing providers refuse tenants based on their records, it can also prevent families from reuniting after a prison sentence, advocates said.
“I committed a crime and went to prison, and I paid my debt. So why punish my family?” said Lee “Taqwaa” Bonner, a policy outreach leader with the Fair Chance campaign and a housing advocate with the group All of Us or None. When he got out of prison, he said, he couldn’t live with his relatives due to his record. “You start losing your faith in humanity and it puts you in a state of depression. How can I be a productive father and a productive son if I can’t get a good night’s sleep?”
Bonner noted that when people re-enter society, they are typically required to live in their home cities but struggle to find a place to accept them: “You can’t live where you were born and raised.
“Let’s set aside our politics and do our part to end homelessness,” he added.
Lin, who is also a researcher at UC Berkeley, conducted a preliminary survey of 41 formerly incarcerated people last year to assess the Fair Chance ordinances that were passed in Berkeley and Oakland in 2020; 33% of respondents said they were able to find housing on their own or with family as a direct result of the new protections, she said.
Seattle and Portland have also passed Fair Chance laws. Cook county in Illinois adopted a law meant to prevent discrimination by requiring landlords to complete an individualized assessment, but they are still allowed to use criminal records. The city and county of San Francisco’s Fair Chance ordinance is limited to affordable housing, and it also allows landlords to consider convictions that are considered “directly related” to the safety of the property. California legislators have also introduced a state bill to ban background checks for housing.
Alameda county’s new ordinance allows landlords to review the sex offender registry. While some property owners have opposed the law, arguing that background checks are an important safety measure, proponents note that landlords still have wide discretion in how they select tenants, and that the ordinance allows tenants to be considered based on the merits of their applications.
The new law is due to take effect when the county’s Covid eviction moratorium expires at the end of April.
Guardian, December 2022