Excerpted from The Mercury News by Marisa Kendall
Oakland on Tuesday moved to become the first city in the state to ban landlords from investigating the criminal history of renters applying for both public and private housing.
The Fair Chance Housing Ordinance, which the City Council passed unanimously Tuesday evening, will prohibit landlords from rejecting a potential tenant because of a prior criminal conviction. Landlords will not be allowed to ask about an applicant’s criminal history or require the applicant to disclose it through a background check. Supporters say the measure will help ensure residents coming home from prison are able to reintegrate back into society, hold down a job and provide for their families, instead of adding to Oakland’s homeless population. But some landlord groups worry the measure will sacrifice residents’ safety.
The measure passed in an 8-0 initial vote and requires one more vote — set for Feb. 4 — before it will go into effect.
“This is incredibly timely, given our collective commitment and my personal commitment to addressing homelessness and housing in our city,” Councilwoman Nikki Fortunato Bas, one of the ordinance’s sponsors, said during Tuesday’s council meeting.
Currently, background checks are a standard part of applying for rental housing, and applicants with a criminal record often are denied. That can make it next to impossible for those who have been incarcerated to find a place to live, especially in the Bay Area’s cutthroat housing market.
Even so, Wayne Rowland, president of the East Bay Rental Housing Association, worried the new ordinance would put tenants at risk.
“As rental housing providers, we have a responsibility to provide a safe environment to residents,” he wrote in an emailed statement, “and a huge part of that is knowing the background of each applicant.”
Oakland’s new ordinance is the strictest of its kind in the state. San Francisco and Richmond have similar ordinances, but those measures apply only to subsidized housing. The Berkeley City Council is set to vote on an ordinance banning tenant background checks next month, and activists plan to propose similar measures in Emeryville and Alameda County.
A bill that would have prohibited landlords across California from asking about tenants’ criminal records was pulled earlier this week before making it out of committee.
Several Oakland council members spoke out in support of the Fair Chance Housing Ordinance on Tuesday. Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney called it “long past overdue.” Vice Mayor Larry Reid said the measure will make a huge difference in the life of his son, who is incarcerated and set to come home soon.
Activists who worked on the ordinance spoke about it during a news conference before Tuesday’s vote.
The fight for fair access to housing is personal for Lee “Taqwaa” Bonner, who served 30 years in prison for two second-degree murders committed when he was 19 — the result, he said, of a troubled childhood and time spent working as a lookout for a drug dealer.
When Bonner was released in 2017 and came home to Oakland, he quickly found that most housing was closed to him. He couldn’t live with either of his two sisters or his daughter, because all had Section 8 vouchers that prohibited residents with criminal convictions. He couldn’t live with his mother, because while she lived in private housing, her lease had a similar provision. And he couldn’t get an apartment on his own, because most had policies barring felons. So, Bonner would shower at his mother’s house and spend the nights sleeping in his car around the corner.
“I was born and raised in Oakland,” said Bonner, who now works as a housing advocate for All of Us or None — one of the groups that helped draft the Oakland Fair Chance Housing Ordinance, along with Just Cities. “I am employed in Oakland. I own and drive a vehicle in Oakland. However, I cannot live in Oakland, based solely on my criminal record, which happened 30 years ago.”
Bonner only obtained permanent housing after he got married and moved into his wife’s East Bay apartment.
But some landlords think the new ordinance goes too far. The California Apartment Association has no problem with laws that “ban the box” applicants often are required to check if they have a criminal conviction — if background checks are allowed later in the process. Banning them altogether is concerning, said Debra Carlton, senior vice president of public affairs for the California Apartment Association.
Through a background check, a landlord might be able to weed out a prospective renter with prior domestic violence convictions, for example, and prevent him or her from moving into an apartment near a victim, Carlton said. Or a background check might allow a landlord to reject a tenant with prior drug-dealing convictions who might endanger neighbors by returning to dealing.
“It’s about the safety of the other tenants in the buildings,” Carlton said.
But Margaretta Lin, executive director of Just Cities, said landlords still have access to credit reports, references and employment information — all the things needed to determine if an applicant will make a good renter.
“There is no research or data that supports … if someone has a criminal record whether or not they’re going to be a successful tenant,” she said.
Under the Oakland Fair Chance Housing Ordinance, single-family homes, duplexes, triplexes and in-law units will be exempt if the owner is living on the property. Likewise, tenants seeking to add or replace a roommate will be exempt. Landlords will be allowed to look up a prospective tenant on the state’s sex offender registry, but only after providing a conditional offer to the potential renter.
The new ordinance also will provide a partial exemption for owners of government-subsidized affordable housing, including Section 8 units, allowing them to continue to use criminal background checks to the extent needed to comply with federal law. Currently, the federal government requires landlords to reject potential tenants who have been convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine or are on the lifetime sex offender registry.
The city will be able to fine landlords up to $1,000 for each violation of the Oakland ordinance.