City Council considers ordinance to protect renters with criminal records

Attorney Margaretta Lin speaks to the council, joined by, from front to back, Larnel Wolf of Safe Return, attorney Deborah Thorpe and Richmond Housing Authority Director Tim Jones. Photo by Lauren Schwartzman.

Attorney Margaretta Lin speaks to the council, joined by, from front to back, Larnel Wolf of Safe Return, attorney Deborah Thorpe and Richmond Housing Authority Director Tim Jones. Photo by Lauren Schwartzman.

After years in and out of prison, mother of four Markesia Huey lived “on the streets” while on waitlists for low-income housing in Contra Costa and Alameda counties. She said she was working two jobs when her name came up for housing in Rodeo in 2013, but that she was denied a home due to her criminal record, and that her appeals had no effect.

Huey’s hopes were raised again when her name came up in Richmond, she said, but again she was rejected because of her record.

“It’s like, I just got through doing this time in the prison system, and I’m getting served all over again,” Huey said.

The Safe Return Project, a Richmond organization that advocates for the formerly incarcerated, wants to reduce barriers to housing for residents like Huey. At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Safe Return organizer Larnel Wolf, Richmond Housing Authority Director Tim Jones, and attorneys Margaretta Lin and Deborah Thorpe presented a draft of an ordinance that would limit subsidized housing providers’ ability to reject applicants with criminal histories.

The “Fair Chance Access to Affordable Housing” ordinance would prohibit government-subsidized housing providers from inquiring about an applicant’s criminal record at the beginning of the screening process. Providers would be allowed to consider prior convictions only after offering applicants a conditional lease agreement. At that point, the provider would be required to make an “individualized assessment” of the applicant, considering factors such as time elapsed since conviction and evidence of rehabilitation.

Nationwide, housing providers regularly screen out applicants with arrest or conviction records. But official guidance released in April by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) said that such practices can qualify as discrimination in violation of the Fair Housing Act.

While the Fair Housing Act does not explicitly protect people with criminal records, it does prohibit discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status or national origin. According to HUD, since people of color, particularly those who are black or Latino, are arrested, convicted and incarcerated at disproportionately high rates, screening processes based on criminal records “are likely to have a disproportionate impact on minority home seekers,” thus violating the act.

A 2011 Safe Return survey of 100 West Contra Costa County residents recently returned from incarceration found that 44 percent believed they had experienced discrimination when applying for housing. One in four had tried without success to obtain public housing or a lease on the private market.

Safe Return Executive Director Tamisha Walker said the organization had been planning to advocate for housing policy reform for some time, and that the April guidance from HUD opened the door for the Fair Chance ordinance.

Studies have found high rates of housing instability and homelessness among the formerly incarcerated. Research has also shown that stable housing is vital to successful reentry after incarceration.

“If you don’t have an address, if you don’t have stable housing, it’s hard to get a job. It’s hard to reconnect with family. Housing is really a lynchpin,” said Eli Moore, Program Manager for California Community Partnerships at the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society and co-founder of Safe Return.

Elayne Weiss, Senior Policy Analyst at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said stable housing for ex-offenders also “helps the community in that we’re reducing the chance that they become homeless or recidivate.” This saves taxpayer money by reducing use of expensive systems like hospitals and prisons, she said.

At the City Council meeting, Theresa Karr, Vice President of Public Affairs for the California Apartment Association (CAA), said during the public comment session that she was disappointed that the association had not been consulted during drafting of the ordinance. She also said she was concerned that the policy would prevent due diligence by landlords.

“Criminal background checks can help a rental property owner identify applicants who pose a risk to other tenants and to property based on relevant prior conduct such as arson, assault, sex crimes,” said Karr.

Presenters of the ordinance said that it would not affect state and federal bans that apply to sex offenders and anyone convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine in public housing. They also said that it would not prohibit landlords from using background checks, but would move that check to later in the application process.

“That should be the last thing done, and not the first thing done,” said Jones. “They’re not saying you can’t ask the question – they’re saying don’t ask it first.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Mayor Tom Butt said he was concerned about the cost of implementing and enforcing the ordinance, which includes the creation of an Appeal Hearing Body.

“I think one thing we clearly need to do if we’re going to move ahead with this is to be more specific about how it’s going to be implemented and come up with a clear implementation plan and a budget,” said Butt.

A revised ordinance, with input from Karr and CAA, will be presented before the council on November 15.

Councilmember Jael Myrick, who co-sponsored the ordinance with Councilmember Jovanka Beckles, said, “The need for us to take this issue on I think is clear, and I think this a very good first step in doing that.”

 

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