Excerpted from US News by Trevor Bach

California’s affordable housing nightmare is well known: More than 40% of residents are now classified as housing cost-burdened, the highest proportion of any state. In many cities in the San Francisco Bay Area, the nation’s tightest housing market, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment now exceeds $2,500, a figure that contributes to a growing homelessness problem, exacerbates gentrification and pinches ostensibly middle-class professionals like teachers and police officers as well as those even higher up the income ladder.

For one demographic the crisis is amplified. “I was born and raised in Oakland,” Lee “Taqwaa” Bonner, a former felon turned advocate, said at a recent news conference. “I am employed in Oakland. … However, I cannot live in Oakland based solely on my criminal record, which happened 30 years ago.” Excluded from the rental market, Bonner has often resorted to living in his car. Others have fared worse, spiraling into permanent homelessness, drug addiction and even death.

On Feb. 4, Oakland’s City Council passed a new ordinance designed as a remedy, prohibiting public and private landlords from inquiring about potential tenants’ criminal histories. The new law, called the Oakland Fair Chance Housing Ordinance, is the most expansive of its kind in California and among the first for major American cities. Decades after the start of the “ban the box” movement, which aims to stop employers from discriminating against the formerly incarcerated, proponents hope it will also act as a new catalyst in the battle to secure equal opportunity for the more than 70 million Americans burdened by criminal records.

“With more and more people returning home from the criminal justice system, housing is really the most basic need that people [have] in order to get back on their feet,” says Council member Nikki Fortunato Bas, a co-sponsor. “It’s really going to help create more opportunity and sort of level the playing field.”

For decades criminal justice experts have highlighted the rampant stigma and discrimination that stifles former prisoners as they attempt to re-enter society – a phenomenon accelerated by the recent ubiquity of online background checks, an invesitgative tool critics point out is often incomplete or seriously flawed. And while the criminal justice system disproportionately impacts black men, it’s also black men who, after their release, are often excluded from jobs, apartments, public benefits, and even vocational licensing on the basis of a conviction they’ve already served time for. “The real punishments begin,” as one African American man who spent 17 years behind bars told The Washington Post, “when we are released from prison.”
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