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Housing In Brief: Alameda County Bans Criminal Background Checks For Prospective Tenants

Judges pause homeless sweeps in Phoenix and San Francisco.

Homeless encampment in California

A man passes a homeless encampment just feet from Larchmont Charter School in Hollywood, Calif. (Sarah Reingewirtz/The Orange County Register via AP)

Alameda County Bans Criminal Background Checks For Tenants

Alameda County, California has become the first county in the nation to prohibit landlords from performing criminal background checks on potential tenants, according to The Guardian. The ordinance was adopted by Alameda County’s Board of Supervisors last week with four yes votes. Oakland and Berkeley, both in Alameda County, already passed laws banning criminal background checks in housing applications in 2020 and 2021, as Emily Nonko previously reported for Next City. And in nearby Richmond, California, the city passed a ban on background checks in 2016, though it was limited to federally-funded affordable housing. Similar legislation has been passed in Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon.

Criminal records have long been a barrier to housing in the U.S. and have contributed to what advocates refer to as the prison to homelessness pipeline. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, 73% of people living in Oakland homeless encampments have some type of criminal record. About 7% of unhoused respondents to an Alameda County survey attributed their homelessness directly to having a criminal record.

The Alameda ordinance could bolster the movement nationwide, including in New York City, where 750,000 residents have a criminal record but legislation banning background checks have faltered. The city council held hearings on a ban this month. Mayor Eric Adams has expressed support for a ban, albeit with caveats, saying, “We need to respect the safety of people who live in buildings,” and singling out people who have been convicted of violent crimes, according to ABC7NY.

Judge Issues Pause on San Francisco Homeless Sweeps

Last week, a judge halted San Francisco’s homeless sweeps because they violated a 2018 federal court ruling, according to Courthouse News.

The 2018 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that it was unlawful to criminalize people for sleeping in public if there was not adequate shelter space available, a case called Martin v. Boise. That ruling was reaffirmed this year. Yet San Francisco, which has far fewer shelter beds than unhoused residents, continued its homeless sweeps undeterred, as detailed in a report released by San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness late last year.

The Coalition on Homelessness filed a lawsuit and provided evidence that the city was violating Martin v. Boise, as well as its own stated policies on seizing belongings. Among the findings in the coalition’s report was that the city was not keeping people’s personal possessions safe for 90 days, per its policy, and was tossing them out instead. The city admitted that it had discarded personal items including laptops and bicycles, but claimed it was for health and safety reasons. The judge was not swayed by this argument, nor by the city’s claim that everyone who requested shelter was receiving it, despite the lack of beds.

A temporary injunction on homeless sweeps may offer a brief reprieve, but only until the city either ramps up shelter capacity or provides more piecemeal solutions, like tiny home villages, as a substitute. And it has already led to pushback, including from Mayor London Breed, who told the AP, “We already have too few tools to deal with the mental illness we see on our streets. Now we are being told not to use another tool that helps bring people indoors and keeps our neighborhoods safe and clean for our residents.” She went on to say that many people on the street were “already housed” and were refusing shelter beds and services. But as laid out in the Coalition on Homelessness report, the city was often conducting sweeps early in the morning and not offering shelter beds and services. The city’s shelters can hold an estimated 40% of the city’s unhoused residents.

A Judge In Phoenix Also Pauses Sweeps

In Phoenix, a judge also issued an injunction ceasing homeless sweeps last week. The judge ordered the city to stop enforcing camping bans against anyone “as long as there are more unsheltered individuals in Phoenix than there are shelter beds available.” He also ordered that the city couldn’t confiscate people’s property without giving proper notice, unless it was a threat to health and safety. The decision came in response to a lawsuit by the ACLU of Arizona.

According to AZ Central, last year the Department of Justice opened an investigation into the tactics of Phoenix police sweeping encampments, who were accused of seizing and discarding peoples’ possessions. In their lawsuit, the ACLU said that the city of Phoenix had spent less than 10% of the money it received from the American Rescue Plan on housing and homelessness. The lawsuit also drew attention to last summer’s temperatures going as high as 106 degrees, leading to a rise in heat deaths in Maricopa County. The lawsuit said that homeless residents had lost birth certificates, medication and reference letters in sweeps.

“Because of this injunction, unsheltered people won’t be at risk of losing essential belongings, receiving unconstitutional citations, and experiencing further trauma at the hands of the city and Phoenix PD,” attorney Benjamin Rundall of the ACLU told the L.A. Times.

That’s it for this year. Have a great New Year’s weekend, and we’ll see you in 2023!

This story has been corrected to reflect that Richmond, California is not in Alameda County.

This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.

Roshan Abraham is Next City's housing correspondent and a former Equitable Cities fellow. He is based in Queens. Follow him on Twitter at @roshantone.

Tags: san franciscohomelessnessrenters rightsphoenixcriminal justice

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