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Seattle City Council could make it easier for those with criminal records to find housing

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The ordinance seeks to reduce homelessness and increase racial equity

An apartment building with outside entrances to the units and colorful doors—red, yellow, green, blue, and purple. Jesse Noone/Flickr

The Seattle City Council will consider the “Fair Chance Housing” ordinance, which would expand rental housing options for those with criminal records—a barrier that disproportionately impacts people of color.

The proposed legislation, which Mayor Ed Murray sent to the City Council for consideration last week, would limit the role of criminal records in the tenant screening process. Landlords wouldn’t be able to screen applicants based on criminal convictions older than two years.

Also off the table: arrests that didn’t lead to a conviction; records that have been expunged, vacated, or sealed; and juvenile records. If a juvenile tenant is on the sex offender registry, that can’t be used for screening, either, but only juveniles—the ordinance cites a 2004 study that juvenile sex crimes have a low recidivism rate.

If a landlord does exclude someone based on a criminal record, they’d have to provide a “business justification” for doing so. Landlords also wouldn’t be allowed to mention criminal-record-based criteria in advertisements.

The bill exempts small landlords—those that manage four units or fewer—and landlords that live on the premises.

Last year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development noted that in some cases, denying housing over a criminal record could violate the Fair Housing Act because of its impact on black and latinx populations.

Locally, more than a quarter of people incarcerated by King County are black, compared to 6 percent of the general population. King County’s black population is also arrested at a much higher rate than its white population.

One in five people become homeless shortly after leaving prison, a report by AllHome, which coordinates homelessness services for King County, found.

Fair Accessible Renting for Everyone (FARE), a coalition that includes Columbia Legal Services, the Tenants Union of Washington, the Public Defender Association, the ACLU of Washington, No New Jim Crow Seattle, and others, have been fighting to lift rental barriers for people with criminal convictions for quite some time.

In a statement, FARE said that the ordinance is a “good start,” but doesn’t go far enough: “Even two years gives legitimacy to a baseless and racially influenced stigma.”

FARE’s recommendation: to eliminate the use of criminal convictions in background checks altogether. They point to a 2015 NYU report showing that criminal records are not a reliable indicator of risky tenancy.

Fair Chance Housing is also a recommendation of Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, better-known as HALA.

Over at The C is for Crank, Erica C. Barnett points out that the exemptions, both the two-year mark and the small landlord carve-outs, seem to negate the point of the law: Allowing a carve-out for landlords that live on the premises seems to feed the narrative that those with criminal records are dangerous, even as the ordinance’s language seems to argue against it. And if getting people into housing reduces recidivism, doesn’t allowing screening for a period of time, especially the first two years, encourage recidivism?

When asked at the press conference announcing the legislation, Murray and the Office of Civil Rights’s Brenda Anibarro said that this was a concession for landlords, who they’ve had some trouble reaching an agreement with. “There are a lot of disagreements over the numbers of years,” said Murray.

The Rental Housing Association (RHA) of Washington, which represents Washington State landlords, hasn’t immediately returned a request for comment, but they have historically opposed the idea.

RHA is currently in the process of suing the city over two other tenant protection laws, one that puts a cap on move-in fees and another that mandates that rental applications be first-come, first-served.

Fair Chance Housing will first be considered in a special meeting of the Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic Development and Arts committee on July 13 at 5:00 p.m.

This article has been updated since its original publication to clarify the time of the City Council committee meeting.