Providing Housing For People With Criminal Backgrounds From Infraction Violations

Outlawing Tenant Screening for Criminal Backgrounds Opens Up Opportunities for People Experiencing Homelessness

People experiencing homelessness face an increased risk of criminal justice system interaction.

At times, for people experiencing homelessness, that interaction with local law enforcement officials enforcing local ordinances results for minor violations such as breaking a local vagrancy ordinance or law. Essentially, individuals experiencing homelessness are being arrested for sleeping outside, in train stations and on park benches. These ordinances often provide more harm than good.

In this blog post, we could really address two issues regarding policy affecting individuals experiencing homelessness. It is important to recognize that there is a real need to urge communities to reconsider their local vagrancy laws and whether or not they result in people experiencing homelessness being arrested for minor infractions.

In New Jersey, many local municipalities have laws on the books that essentially restrict “camping in public.” On December 16, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Ninth Circuit Court ruling. If there are no available alternatives, people experiencing homelessness cannot be criminally punished by state or local governments for sleeping outside on public property. You can read more about this ruling and the issue around people being punished for sleeping outside here.

But in this blog, we will focus on the need to provide housing access to those with criminal backgrounds.

In its “Win-Win: Equipping Housing Providers to Open Doors to Housing for People with Criminal Records” report, the Heartland Alliance states that criminal history checks are a typical part of the housing application processes. As a result of landlords screening out people with records, individuals with criminal records may often be turned away.

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. Arrests for infractions such as violations of vagrancy or camping laws most likely do not indicate that the potential tenant would be a risk to other residents or the rental property.

Holding a criminal record that results from minor infractions of the law such as being arrested for sleeping outside most likely does not indicate or predict that a prospective tenant would not be able to pay their rent on time and meet the terms of their lease.

Making housing access contingent on lack of criminal justice involvement often makes it impossible for those persons experiencing homeless and with a history with the criminal justice system to move into housing. This creates a situation where communities are unable to fully end homelessness because a portion of the population is deemed ineligible for housing.

There is a racial disparity in the homeless population which means that if African American or black people disproportionately experiencing homelessness, they make up the majority of the people being arrested for infractions and are as a population, being locked out of housing.

When a person experiencing homelessness is arrested for an infraction, they may face being placed in jail or having to pay a fine that they have no financial means to afford. Denying people access to housing because their homelessness was criminalized does not address the underlying causes of homelessness, does nothing to solve the homelessness crisis, and violates the civil rights of people experiencing homelessness.

If landlords, both private and public, use criminal background as a reason to not provide housing, these landlords are not providing housing opportunity to individuals experiencing homelessness who may have also interacted with the criminal justice system for minor infractions.

Having a home that you can call one’s 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 if everywhere you submit a rental application, that application is denied because of criminal background for which you have paid your debt to society?

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 an excellent example of what local counties and municipalities can do to address the racial inequity on the homeless service and affordable housing system. This ordinance provides more good than harm.

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. Landlords, in this case could still screen by looking at references and employment records.

While the best policy solution to this social problem would be to outlaw the use of criminal background checks, it should be noted that the Heartland Alliance report does explain the importance of landlords being able to read and understand criminal history reports available court information for a wide variety of cases: traffic cases, ordinance violations, misdemeanor, and felony cases.

Click here for our blog post that examines Addressing Racial Disparity Through Outlawing Tenant Background Checks.

Future Monarch Housing blogs posts will address how we can further open up housing access.