Excerpted from a VOX article by Rachel M. Cohen
Every year, more than 600,000 people leave US state and federal prisons. Then they need to find a place to live.
Researchers have found that formerly incarcerated individuals are far more likely to be homeless than the general public. Many landlords simply reject renting to applicants who’ve been to jail or prison — and given that one in three US adults has a criminal record, this creates a significant housing crisis.
But those released with stable housing are more likely to reintegrate into their communities and less likely to end up back in prison than their formerly incarcerated peers in more precarious housing situations.
Enter “fair chance” laws: legislation that limits how landlords can use criminal records when screening prospective tenants. While the ordinances vary from place to place — some cover all rental housing while others just apply to subsidized housing — the goal is to limit how criminal histories can be used and ensure due process for prospective tenants when applying.
Think of it as a “ban-the-box” policy, which prohibits employers from asking about criminal records, but for landlords. The movement has picked up steam in liberal localities over the last decade, first in cities like Oakland, Berkeley, Seattle, and Portland. In Richmond, California, landlords who accept Section 8 vouchers are barred from rejecting applicants based on criminal history alone. Minneapolis restricts the use of background checks, eviction history, and credit history in rental applications, and New Jersey restricts how far back in time a specific crime can be considered.
Early research suggests fair chance ordinances may have some unintended consequences: One study found landlords in Minneapolis became more likely to discriminate by race after the policy took effect. But by and large, there hasn’t been much research into how fair chance laws are working, as proponents have been focused on raising awareness about the new protections and implementing them.
For now, most advocates have their eye on a pending legal battle in Seattle, which in 2017 passed the most progressive fair chance ordinance in the country, prohibiting landlords from asking about “any arrest record, conviction record or criminal history” or refusing to rent to them because of that history. Landlords sued in 2018, arguing the statute violated their free speech and due process rights, and this past March a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the part of the law banning landlords from asking about criminal histories was unconstitutional.
What we know about fair chance ordinances in practice
For now, the only rigorous study on fair chance housing ordinances comes from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve, where two economists looked at the effects of a law the Minneapolis city council passed in 2019.
The local law caps security deposits at one month’s rent, bans the use of credit scores in rental applications, and restricts landlords’ ability to reject people based on evictions that occurred more than three years prior. For criminal records, landlords can no longer reject applicants due to misdemeanors older than three years, felonies older than seven years, and certain more serious convictions older than 10 years.
The economists submitted fake email inquiries to publicly listed rental ads using names chosen to sound like Black, white, and Somali people. (Minnesota has the largest Somali population in the US.)
The researchers found that after Minneapolis’s fair chance ordinance took effect, discrimination against Black and Somali applicants increased by over 10 percentage points for both groups, relative to those in neighboring St. Paul, which did not have such a law. Differences were largest for emails sent from Black and Somali male-sounding names, for apartments that were at least two bedrooms, and for units in historically Black neighborhoods. (The researchers couldn’t identify individual companies that discriminated, but could observe discrimination based on overall contact rates to randomized emails sent to large groups of properties.)
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