Can Seattle Lead the Way in Creating Fair Housing Policy for Renters Across the Nation?

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The Seattle City Council last week voted to end criminal background screens for renters. Photo by Justin TL/Flickr.com

Renters in the United States face a number of barriers to getting the housing they need — from rising rents to credit checks to racial discrimination. But last week the Seattle City Council removed a major obstacle renters face by voting unanimously to stop landlords from screening prospective renters based on their arrest or criminal conviction history. The new legislation is known as the Fair Chance Housing Ordinance and is being described by advocacy groups as the most progressive housing policy passed by any major U.S. city to date.

One in three residents of Seattle has a criminal background. Additionally, the city of more than 700,000 has a major homeless problem, with 55 percent of the homeless population forgoing shelters. Seattle’s housing crisis is so well-known that the Twitter hashtag #Seahomeless is commonly used by city officials, advocates and the public.

For more than a decade, nonprofits such as Village of Hope and Jubilee Women’s Center have worked to raise awareness about how criminal background checks have contributed to the housing crisis in Seattle, especially for people of color, who are disproportionately targets of the criminal justice system and ensnared by the prison industrial complex.

“Throughout our city we see residents struggling to access housing and communities, especially communities of color, facing displacement,” said Hana Alicic of the Tenants Union and lead organizer for Fair and Accessible Renting for Everyone (FARE) Coalition, which includes people with criminal records and their advocates. “We are grateful now to Lisa Herbold and the rest of Council for hearing these stories and setting an example for the rest of the country.”

Seattle Councilwoman Herbold pointed out how current housing law allows landlords to weed out prospective tenants who’ve been arrested (but not necessarily convicted) during the past seven years. Last year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a new guidance informing landlords and home sellers that rejecting tenants or buyers based on criminal history may violate the Fair Housing Act. HUD pointed out that a blanket ban against people with criminal histories would have a disparate impact on people of color, since Black men are imprisoned at about six times the rate that white men are, and Hispanic men are incarcerated at more than double the rate that white men are. But the federal government’s guidance didn’t go so far as to tell landlords to remove criminal background screens from the application process altogether. That’s what makes Seattle’s new policy stand out.

“For a criminal justice system that disproportionately arrests people of color, punishing someone who hasn’t been found guilty is a true injustice,” Herbold said in a statement posted on the City Council’s website. “For those who have been convicted, the way I see it, you’ve paid your debt to society if you’ve served your time. Blocking formerly incarcerated people from accessing stable housing is an extrajudicial punishment not consistent with the rule of law. It is also a recipe for recidivism and less safety for our communities. Recidivism decreases significantly when people get housing. With housing, a person is seven times less likely to reenter the criminal justice system.”

In addition to Blacks and Latinos, Seattle has a significant Native American population. Pamela Stearns, chair of the King County Native American Leadership Council, said the new housing ordinance “corrects an historic injustice,” given that the city’s founders terrorized and discriminated against its Native American inhabitants.

“Natives have continued to almost live in the shadows, and our community members are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system,” Stearns said. “The ordinance gives our people hope and the opportunity to secure housing in the city that bears the name of one of our greatest leaders.” Seattle is named after Chief Seattle, or Chief Sealth, who belonged to the Suquamish Tribe.

The Seattle City Council made the unprecedented move to bar landlords from screening would-be tenants for criminal history based on research conducted by Columbia Legal Services. The study found that “the assumption that a criminal record is accurately predictive of a future problematic tenancy is not supported by current social science research. Tort law should not rely on assumptions about future threats based on a past criminal record when empirical evidence suggests that the risk is not inherent or predictable.”

Seattle’s Fair Chance Housing Ordinance will go into effect in six months. While it has removed a major barrier for renters, “landlords will still be able to screen applicants based on employment, credit scores, income ratios, or other criteria to ensure people will be good tenants,” Herbold said.

Given the income inequality gap, Black and brown people are still the groups most likely to have poor credit scores and to spend more than a third of their income on rent. Landlords who reject applicants on this criteria alone continue to make housing inaccessible to communities of color. Accordingly, fair housing advocates not only need to celebrate their recent win in Seattle but also push for removing barriers for renters based solely on their financial history and not specifically on their rental history. If a prospective renter has no history of evictions or dodging rent payments, why should a charge-off on a credit card stop him from getting housing? Moreover, workers of color, especially women, routinely get paid less than white males, even when performing the same jobs.

Rejecting a renter of color because her rent would amount to more than 30 percent of her income is another injustice that threatens housing stability for Black and brown people. In cities with skyrocketing rents, such as Los Angeles, it’s nearly impossible for residents to secure a rental that doesn’t eat up more than a third of their salary. With that in mind, eliminating criminal background screens is just the first step in making the rental application process more equitable for all.

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