Granting Access to Housing for Individuals With Criminal Backgrounds

Addressing Racial Disparity Through Outlawing Tenant Background Checks

People of color in the United States have disproportionate interactions with the criminal justice system. 

If landlords, both private and public, use criminal background as a reason for not providing housing, these landlords automatically lock out a whole population of people of color from housing opportunity.The lasting effect of screening perspective tenants for a criminal background is that housing segregation and racial inequity is perpetuated.

In its “Win-Win: Equipping Housing Providers to Open Doors to Housing for People with Criminal Records” report, the Heartland Alliance reports that “Unfortunately, criminal history checks are a typical part of the housing application processes, and many people with records are declined housing opportunities they would otherwise be a good fit for.”

Landlords can screen perspective tenants for a criminal background one of two ways – ask a potential tenant about criminal background or require a background check which looks for among other things a criminal background.

After prisoners have served their time and been released to society, they critically need housing, employment, job training, and educational opportunities, access to food, childcare, and family support to help them reintegrate back into society, get and maintain employment and help support their families. Having affordable and stable housing is key to individuals’ success and the prevention of recidivism.

Having a home that you can call ones own and go home to every night helps people keep jobs, reconnect with your family and feel like they are once again part of the community. How do you find affordable housing for you and your family if everywhere you submit a rental application, that application is denied because of criminal background for which you have paid your debt to society?

How do you meet potential obligations of your parole that you are conducting a job search and find and maintain work if you are locked out of housing opportunities, you are living in a homeless shelter, your car, or outside? Once one has paid their debt to society, don’t they have the right to their own home?

On January 21, 2020, the Mercury News reported that Oakland CA recently passed a city ordinance preventing landlords from using criminal background as part of their tenant screening process. This ordinance provides us with an excellent example of what local counties and municipalities can do to address the racial inequity on the homeless service and affordable housing system.

Once such a local ordinance is in place (and depending on how the ordinance or maybe regulation is written) municipalities can fine landlords for asking potential tenants about any criminal history requiring a background check for tenancy.

The Heartland Alliance report includes a very helpful with criminal record screening requirements for federally assisted housing. It is important to keep in mind that local public housing authorities in many cases have leeway regarding policies on screening tenants for criminal background.

Besides being a lifetime registered sex offender or convicted producing meth at federally assisted housing or being evicted for drug related activity on federally assisted policy, individuals with other categories of conviction may be eligible for federally assisted housing.

The report does an excellent job of dispelling myths and supporting the argument in the Mercury News article that criminal background checks are not necessary to ensure the safety of neighboring tenants. Landlords, in this case could still screen by looking at references and employment records.

Future Monarch blog posts will take a look at how providing housing for people with criminal backgrounds can end homelessness and open up housing access.