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City Council passes law preventing rental restrictions based on criminal records

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The ordinance seeks to combat homelessness and inequality

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

Seattle’s “Fair Chance Housing” ordinance, which would expand rental housing options for those with criminal records, was unanimously passed by the Seattle City Council on Monday afternoon.

The law would prevent landlords from screening applicants based on criminal convictions.

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.

The law, which was a recommendation from Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, was originally sent to City Council from Mayor’s office back in June, and originally allowed landlords to screen tenants for recent criminal convictions and exempted landlords that live on the premises.

The version passed by Council only exempts landlords that share a kitchen or bathroom with their tenants, or that rent out an accessory dwelling unit. Small landlords who manage four units or fewer would also be exempted from the law, and the law would not apply to sex offenders who committed their crimes as adults.

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 law comes during a city state of emergency on homelessness—part of the idea is that by reducing a barrier to housing, more people will be able to obtain housing.

One in five people become homeless shortly after leaving prison, a report by AllHome, which coordinates homelessness services for King County, found. In a city needs assessment, 14 percent of surveyed people experiencing homelessness said they were on probation or parole at the time they became homeless. About 28 percent reported they were involved in the justice system prior to experiencing homelessness.

Criminal background checks are a barrier to housing that disproportionately impacts people of color.

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.

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 a while.

In a statement about the original ordinance, FARE pointed to a 2015 NYU report showing that criminal records are not a reliable indicator of risky tenancy.

Public reception at the City Council meeting was largely positive, with several even sharing their own stories of trying to find housing with criminal convictions.

In his comments, Seattle resident Rusty Thomas said that since his conviction he’s gone back to college and started working for a nonprofit that teaches mindfulness in prison, “yet I still receive the message that I don’t belong in the community... I’m still being told... you can’t live here. We can’t trust you. No matter how much work I put in.”

The Rental Housing Association of Washington (RHAWA), which represents Washington State landlords, has historically opposed the idea of limiting background checks.

In a statement, RHAWA said they oppose the bill “not because of its purpose or mission, but because it represents poor policy which will not succeed, and poses many unintended consequences.”

“A mandate offering no supportive services will not encourage landlords to take chances on under-qualified applicants,” they explained, pointing to a 2009 study about the role of supportive services in finding housing for people with behavioral health issues. In that study, 51 percent of subjects had criminal convictions.

“The barriers ex-offenders face in accessing rental housing are not caused by landlords, but by structural and institutional barriers,” said RHAWA.

They proposed a few alternate solutions: a Landlord Liaison project that would that would work with landlords to house those with criminal convictions, using ADUs as emergency housing, or a program similar to one being used in Denver where the city buys down rents in vacant buildings.

We asked if they’re taking the position that everyone with a criminal record or recently incarcerated needs supportive services. “No,” said spokesperson Sean Martin, “but this policy is going to result in more barriers to housing for tenants if those services aren't available.

RHAWA is currently in the process of suing the city over a law that puts a cap on move-in fees.

The Fair Chance Housing law will take effect around five months after being signed by the mayor. In the meantime, the city will establish an education program for landlords.

This article has been updated to correct information about RHAWA’s legal actions against the city.