When John Jones III was released from prison in 2012, he had an experience that’s all too common for returning citizens: “I was homeless and unemployed for 18 months,” he says. Even after securing employment, the third generation East Oakland resident kept facing barriers to housing. “I had a property manager say, ‘We don’t do background checks,’ but then my application was sent to a third party and I still got denied.”
His experience in prison and challenges faced in reentry led to community and political organizing — he advocated for California’s Proposition 47, which implemented broad changes to felony sentencing laws, and was appointed a Democratic Party Delegate for the state. In 2019, as the community and political engagement director for the Oakland organization Just Cities, he got the chance to challenge the housing restrictions he faced several years prior.
Jones served as director for the “Fair Chance to Housing” campaign that would result in some of the country’s strongest housing laws for formerly incarcerated people. What began as organizing among directly impacted people in the Bay Area expanded to key partnerships with politicians and city officials and successful outreach to landlords. In February of last year, Oakland City Council passed a Fair Chance Housing ordinance to remove barriers to housing for residents returning from the criminal justice system. In March, Berkeley City Council passed its own ordinance to do the same.
“We were able to secure the win through authentic engagement and education,” Jones says. “We stuck to the theme of humanizing the issue, with members of our team sharing their experience of trying to access housing.”
Just Cities’ focus on housing began with a 2016-2017 campaign to restore the anti-displacement safety net in Oakland, Berkeley and across Alameda County. “We worked on designing anti-displacement strategies for low-income homeowners and tenants and were able to get those passed as policy priorities and secure $65 million from public funds for that safety net,” according to Just Cities’ executive director Margaretta Lin. The anti-displacement campaign involved the Berkeley Mayor’s office, city officials motivated to build on the work and pass fair chance housing laws for formerly-incarcerated residents.
There was already some groundwork across the country. Richmond, California, passed an ordinance in 2016 to prohibit landlords who accept Section 8 vouchers or own HUD-subsidized properties from rejecting applicants based on criminal history alone. Seattle passed Fair Chance Housing legislation in 2017; Portland’s FAIR Ordinances passed last year.
But in Berkeley, “we had to ask them to hold off,” explains Lin. “Our policy change work is starting with the people who are most impacted by the problem — not in a tokenized way but in a very extensive way.” The team also knew this would be an uphill battle. In Seattle, landlord resistance resulted in a lawsuit against the city. (The state supreme court found the ordinance constitutional in 2019.)
Throughout 2019, Jones worked closely with Just Cities staff, coalition and community members, in outreach, engagement, debate and research that would prove crucial to the design of the ordinance. “The first step was being very clear and diligent about centering the leadership of those with the direct lived experiences,” Jones says. The campaign team included “policy and outreach leaders” who received training and support from Just Cities to share stories of how they’ve been impacted by housing discrimination.
That team not only outlined its vision for fairer housing laws, they visited elected officials and policymakers and shared their testimony at public hearings and town halls. Towanda Sherry (known widely as Ms. Sherry) is a longtime Oakland activist and policy and outreach leader who shared how housing discrimination prevented her formerly incarcerated son from moving in and accessing family support. “There was no bitterness as we shared our stories,” recalls Jones. “Yes, they are tragic. But more importantly, we knew it was important to allow folks to see us up close. There were very few people who walked away still adamantly opposed.”
Crucially, the team maintained close ties to the Berkeley Mayor’s Office. “The Mayor’s Office gave us the time to design the policy and write the ordinance language,” explains Lin. “We actually wrote the law!” Lin invited Richard Illgen, former Oakland Deputy City Attorney, to the campaign to help craft language in collaboration with the team. “Had he not retired, he would have written the ordinance for the city,” she says.
Outreach with landlords was another key decision. The campaign reached out to the Berkeley Property Ownership Association and invited them to offer feedback on the proposed policy language. When the campaign learned of landlords sending opposition mailers, they scheduled a town hall and invited them.
“We asked to have a real conversation, not just walking them through what we’re trying to do,” notes Jones. The town hall was a chance not just to share the “human stories,” notes Jones, but to explain the nuances of a “criminal record.” 90 percent of convictions are based on plea bargains, for example, which doesn’t always mean that person committed the crime they’re charged for. The team pointed out how background checks can be sources of misinformation — Jones’ own background check says his prison term started in 1983, when he was nine years old.
Throughout this engagement, the campaign intentionally avoided media attention. “Once something hits the media, you lose control of the narrative — the headlines sensationalize, like Convicts for Housing,” as Jones put it. The campaign stuck with direct outreach and prioritizing stories of directly impacted campaign members before reaching out to a reporter they trusted.
By December of 2019, the campaign reached unanimous agreement with Berkeley City Council regarding the policy language and ordinance details. The ordinance passed in March, making it unlawful for landlords to inquire about criminal history, refuse to rent or terminate a tenancy based on that history, demand higher security deposit or rent, refuse to allow the addition of an immediate family member, or disqualify tenants from rental assistance programs such as Section 8.
As Berkeley City Council moved to pass that ordinance, a similar ordinance in Oakland passed in February. “We did all the heavy lifting in Berkeley and Oakland got to benefit from that process,” Lin says. The campaign originally assumed an Oakland campaign would present more challenges, pushing it back to focus on Berkeley. But when Jones and Lin met with Oakland Councilmember Larry Reid to discuss an unrelated issue, they got to talking about the campaign. Reid’s son was incarcerated at the time and would be at risk of losing his housing when he returned home. “The next question was,” Jones says, “Why are we not doing this here?”
During the Oakland City Council hearing, which took place in January of 2020, other councilmembers shared that they had loved ones who were formerly or currently incarcerated. The ordinance passed later that month.
That quick implementation was followed by the outreach and engagement the campaign led with in Berkeley — but this time, organizers needed to ensure that both applicants with criminal records and landlords knew about the new law. Despite COVID-19 restricting in-person meetings, the campaign partnered with Oakland organizations like CURYJ and Asian Prisoner Support Committee to distribute informational pamphlets and one-page FAQs. Just Cities also conducted trainings with stakeholders like the Alameda County Public Defender’s office to walk them through the ordinance.
Just Cities commissioned California-based illustrator and muralist Celeste Byers to create artwork for the campaign to further publicize the ordinance. The organization is also collaborating with Hip Hop for Change to create a hip hop record paired with a music video on Fair Chance Housing.
Just Cities will maintain its close partnership with Berkeley’s mayor office in implementation and enforcement, according to Lin. The campaign is advocating to expand the ordinance across Alameda County, which includes 14 cities (including Oakland and Berkeley) as well as six unincorporated communities.
Organizers are being patient as far as statewide implementation. “We’re asking [state legislators] what we asked of the Berkeley Mayor: wait until we’re ready to pass something extraordinary,” Lin says. “Otherwise it’s not going to measure up to what we’ve done locally.” The campaign is paying close attention to, and assisting with, a push to develop a statewide policy in Washington.
This work, to Lin and Jones, is setting the state for a much-needed and overdue national movement. In that vein, they’re consulting with advocates around the country who want to spearhead similar campaigns, including one in New York City. The movement isn’t just hitting big cities — the mayor of Jackson, Michigan introduced a fair chance housing ordinance this February. In each conversation, Jones stresses “it’s so important to center the people who are impacted to make sure they’re getting what they are asking for.”
“We’re trying to show there’s a north star policy,” Lin says of the results in Oakland and Berkeley. “The policy details matter, the process matters. The focus on the human element matters.”
This article is part of Returning Home, a mini-series about housing after prison. Returning Home is generously underwritten by Just Cities.
Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and transit.