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Bill seeking to help those with criminal records find housing passes City Council committee

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

Seattle’s “Fair Chance Housing” ordinance, which would expand rental housing options for those with criminal records, unanimously passed a City Council committee on Tuesday morning. The full City Council will consider the legislation on Monday.

The proposed legislation, which the Mayor’s office sent to City Council for consideration back in June, would limit the role of criminal records in the tenant screening process. Landlords wouldn’t be able to screen 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.

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.

An amendment added that landlords can’t use a tenant’s immigration status as retaliation for exercising rights outlined by the law.

The bill exempts small landlords—those that manage four units or fewer—and landlords that share a kitchen or bathroom with their prospective tenants or rent out an ADU. (Originally, the bill exempted all landlords that live on the same premises.)

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.

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

Originally, the legislation allowed landlords to screen based on criminal convictions in the past two years. An amendment passed in committee struck down that carve-out.

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.

When the legislation was first introduced, FARE called the ordinance a “good start,” but said in a statement that the two-year exception—which ultimately didn’t make out out of committee—“gives legitimacy to a baseless and racially influenced stigma.”

FARE recommended eliminating the use of criminal convictions in background checks altogether, pointing to a 2015 NYU report showing that criminal records are not a reliable indicator of risky tenancy.

When asked at the press conference announcing the legislation, Murray and the Office of Civil Rights’s Brenda Anibarro said that they’d put in the two-year lookback as a concession for landlords, who they’d had some trouble reaching an agreement with.

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 of limiting background checks at all.

In a tweet soon after the bill passed Council, RHA Council “ignore[d] landlord input” on the legislation.

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

The legislation will be considered by the full City Council at their regular meeting this Monday, August 14 at 2 p.m.

This article has been updated to correct the summary of the legislation to include added amendments.