Seattle Moves to Ban Criminal Background Checks for Renters

"I can be re-sentenced by a landlord all over again."

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Seattle wants to make it easier for formerly incarcerated people to find a home. Today, the City Council is likely to pass a new ordinance that, with few exceptions, would prohibit landlords from screening potential tenants based on past convictions or arrests. With an average of 85 people per month being released from prison and into homelessness in Washington, the Fair Chance Housing ordinance is a new approach for a city grappling with housing and homelessness crises. [UPDATE: The City Council approved the ordinance unanimously.]

“My belief [is] that individuals should not be extra-judiciously punished by their landlords, that we should minimize barriers to housing. … [It’s] a recognition that 55 percent of the people who are unhoused in this city identified their criminal background as the barrier to their housing,” said Council Member Lisa Herbold at last Tuesday’s Civil Rights Committee meeting. The committee voted 6-0 to send the bill to full council for a vote.

Currently, landlords can screen tenants based on criminal convictions and arrests (including arrests not resulting in conviction) that occurred in the previous seven years. City council’s approval would mean landlords will not be able to screen tenants for past crimes or arrests, pending criminal charges or juvenile records. They also will not be allowed to advertise their rental listings with blanket bans such as “felons need not apply.”

There are several exceptions. If an adult’s conviction resulted in her placement on the lifetime sex offender registry, a landlord can use it as a reason to deny tenancy. However, if a juvenile’s conviction resulted in placement on the adult sex-offender registry, it cannot be used against him. The law does not apply to landlords renting out a room in the home they live in or a mother-in-law unit on the same property.

“Thirty percent of people living in King County and Seattle have criminal records. It’s a huge barrier for people who are unsheltered and trying to move out of homelessness,” says Nick Straley, a lawyer with Columbia Legal Services, one of the organizations spearheading the new ordinance.

Two years in the making, the proposed ordinance stemmed from the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, a list of 65 recommendations adopted by the city to address affordable housing and homelessness.

In the original legislation that Mayor Ed Murray sent to City Council for consideration in June, landlords would’ve been able to look back at two years of criminal convictions. On Tuesday, the Civil Rights Committee passed an amendment eliminating the look back entirely.

Explaining the rationale for his amendment, Council Member Mike O’Brien said, “There’s no evidence I’ve seen that a criminal record is telling on someone’s ability to be a good tenant or not. Allowing that to continue to be used certainly has a negative impact on folks with a criminal record without any clear benefit to the landlord or other tenant. … Eliminating the two-year look back period will make the impacts we’re trying to achieve more robust.”

Proponents point to a 2015 study that concluded past criminal convictions are not an indicator of a tenant’s success and that stable housing reduces recidivism.

“When you get people housed, the chance of recidivism goes down. Housing improves public safety as opposed to barring housing,” says Straley.

Unsurprisingly, many landlords have voiced opposition to the bill. The Rental Housing Association of Washington, a landlord lobbying group, has come out against it. On Tuesday, Seattle landlord Sara Weaver testified against the bill saying it, “put the safety and security of tenants at risk and set property owners up for potential damage.”

Last year, Washington, D.C., passed a similar law. D.C.’s version gives landlords more power to bar applicants based on past crimes, however.

Though people with criminal records are not protected by the federal Fair Housing Act, last year the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that blanket bans on tenants with conviction and arrest records may violate the Act because it would likely have a disproportionate impact on African-American and Latino applicants. Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro told NPR, “When landlords refuse to rent to anyone who has an arrest record, they effectively bar the door to millions of folks of color for no good reason.”

Though tenant screening is now commonplace, Straley points out it’s a relatively recent phenomenon spurred on by the advent of the internet and for-profit tenant screening companies.

“Until about 10 or 15 years ago, a landlord would’ve had no way to know what somebody’s criminal record is unless they went down to each courthouse or county office to pull individual records,” he says. “It’s the modern scarlet letter. Ten to 15 years ago, we didn’t have widespread complaints from landlords of tenant on tenant violence or fears of break-ins.”

Sue Mason is the executive director of What’s Next Washington, a nonprofit that helps former inmates transition back into society. She herself is a former inmate who’s been out of prison for 14 years.

“The current law destabilizes people over and over and over,” she testified at Tuesday’s committee meeting. “Even though maybe I strike gold and find a place to live, have a stable rental history, have a stable job history, if I have to move for some reason, I can be re-sentenced by a landlord all over again. I can be destabilized by a private citizen.”

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Josh Cohen is Crosscut’s city reporter covering Seattle government, politics and the issues that shape life in the city.

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Tags: affordable housingseattleprisons

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