Washington Low Income Housing Alliance
Legislation pending before the Seattle City Council aims to eliminate a significant barrier to housing by prohibiting landlords from denying housing based on an applicant’s involvement with the criminal justice system. The Fair Chance Housing Ordinance, introduced by Mayor Murray and sponsored by Councilmember Herbold, could be a game-changer that would address a central factor causing disproportionate experiences of homelessness among communities of color, especially among African Americans. The Housing Alliance supports the proposed ordinance, and urges the council to eliminate the two-year look-back period and to eliminate the exemption of four-plexes.
Here is what the legislation does:
Council Bill (CB) 119015, referred to as Fair Chance Housing, would prevent a landlord from using an applicant’s criminal history to deny tenancy, except in limited situations and only if the landlord provides a legitimate business reason for doing so. The bill makes it illegal for a landlord to deny housing based on a tenant’s criminal record. There are several exemptions in the current bill. Landlords would be able to deny tenancy to adults who are registered sex offenders if the landlord provides a legitimate business reason for the denial. The current bill also allows a landlord to consider conviction records within two years of the date of application. Finally, the bill exempts shared occupancy units (including mother-in-laws) if the landlord lives on site, and also buildings with four or fewer living units if the owner lives in one of the units. There is an amendment to remove the two year look-back period and the exemption for four-plexes. The bill does not change federal laws that require federally funded housing to deny tenancy to tenants convicted of certain crimes.
Why does the Housing Alliance support Fair Chance Housing?
The Housing Alliance and our members have worked for many years to eliminate the unfair barriers to housing that are created by the increased use of tenant screening reports. We have changed state law to regulate tenant screening reports to protect survivors of domestic violence, require that tenants be given a copy of the report, require an adverse action notice when tenants are denied housing, and we have limited the reporting of eviction records. However, significant barriers remain, including the use of criminal records to deny housing. Four in five landlords have blanket policies that deny housing to applicants with a criminal record. This practice has significant and disproportionate impacts on communities of color, especially African American communities.
The Seattle Office for Civil Rights explained the nexus between the proposed ordinance and racial equity in a May 2017 briefing to council, “Racial equity is central to the issue of fair chance housing. People of color face compounding effects of criminal records due to racial bias in tenant selection as well as racial disparities in the criminal justice system. In 2014, 64% of OCR’s fair housing tests found incidents of different treatment based on race. In some cases, African Americans were told they would have to undergo a criminal record check when similarly situated white counterparts were not.”
The Office for Civil Rights further explained, “In Washington state, African Americans are 3.4% of the overall population, but account for nearly 18.4% of the state's prison population; Latinos are 11.2% of Washington's population, but account for 13.2% of the state’s prison population; and Native Americans are 1.3% of the state population, but account for 4.7% of the state's prison population.”
An analysis by the Washington State Department of Social and Health Service’s, Rehabilitation Administration explains the impact on youth of color, “Because youth of color disproportionately enter and move through the juvenile justice system in Washington state, youth of color are disproportionately affected by the collateral consequences of the involvement with the system. Youth who transition out of secure confinement encounter substantial challenges in gaining employment, finding housing; getting an education and accessing medical and mental health care.”
Racial equity is a key reason that the Housing Alliance supports the proposed ordinance. The ordinance also creates an opportunity to expand by legislation a central premise of the successful, yet too rarely utilized, housing first approach to tenant selection. Housing first is an access-to-housing model that approaches housing as a fundamental necessity, not as an award for “good behavior”. It recognizes housing to be a foundation that creates a pathway to successful outcomes on health, employment, family unification, and overall success. A central premise of housing first is to not deny housing based on previous involvement with the criminal justice system. But this model has only been adopted by some stellar nonprofit housing providers, while the private market regularly denies housing to applicants with a criminal record. The proposed will ordinance will change this.
Additionally, eliminating this barrier to housing is key to ending homelessness and to addressing the disproportionate experiences of homelessness faced by communities of color. Currently in Washington, 44% of people released from State Department of Corrections Facilities will become homeless within the first year of release. Nationally, approximately 15% of jail inmates had been homeless in the year prior to their incarceration, and 54% of homeless individuals report spending time in a correctional facility at some point in their lives.
Fair Chance Housing is model legislation that will address a root cause of homelessness and a key factor causing the disproportionate experiences of homelessness by communities of color. The Housing Alliance fully supports this legislation and urges our members and advocates join us.
Want to learn more about this ordinance and this issue? Here's some great sources
SOCR memo to Seattle City Council’s Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic Development, and Arts Committee on Fair Chance Housing stake-holder process.
Washington State Department of Social and Health Service’s, Rehabilitation Administration on racial and ethnic disparities in the Washington State juvenile justice system.
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of General Counsel Guidance on Application of Fair Housing Act Standards to the Use of Criminal Records by Providers of Housing and Real Estate-Related Transactions
Housing Alliance toolkit to combat the criminalization of homelessness
 David Thacher, The Rise of Criminal Background Screening in Rental Housing, Law & Social Inquiry 33 (1) (2008): 5, 12. (Single-family rental firms also commonly screen tenants based on criminal history, and, in some cases, applicants can be turned away based on a criminal conviction). See, for example, Invitation Homes Rentals, “Resident Selection Criteria,” available at http:// invitationhomesrentals.com/ Chicagorentalcriteria11.2012.pdf/ (last accessed Nov. 2014).
 The Housing Status of Individuals Leaving Institutions and Out-of-Home Care: A Summary of Findings from Washington State Melissa Ford Shah, MPP • Barbara Felver, MPA, MES. Washington State Department of Social and Health Services Research and Data Analysis Division, Report Number 11.200
 National Health Care for the Homeless Council Criminal Justice, Homelessness & Health. 2012 Policy Statement