New Jersey lawmakers on Thursday voted to limit landlords’ use of criminal background checks, making the Garden State Legislature the first to approve statewide legislation to prevent property owners from automatically rejecting potential tenants with criminal records.
Arrests, convictions, and incarceration, which disproportionately touch the lives of Black and Hispanic people in the United States, can prevent renters from finding housing years or decades later. Cities such as Newark, Seattle, and Washington have laws similar to the one New Jersey passed.
The legislation now heads to Gov. Phil Murphy, who has said he will sign it.
The measure would prevent landlords from considering most types of criminal histories until after they make a conditional offer of housing. One exception is lifelong inclusion on a sex-offender registry. Landlords won’t be able to consider sealed or expunged records, juvenile records, or charges that did not result in conviction.
After making a conditional offer, property owners can consider certain convictions for crimes such as murder, aggravated sexual assault, and arson. The severity of other crimes determines how far back a landlord can look. If landlords rescind an offer after seeing someone’s criminal record, they need to justify that choice.
“This measure will allow those who have paid their debt to society to move forward with their lives in a productive manner,” State Sen. Troy Singleton (D., Burlington), who sponsored the legislation, said in a statement. “Ultimately, having a place to call home provides ex-offenders with a stabilizing platform where they can get back on their feet, maintain employment, avoid homelessness and recidivism, and reconnect with their families.”
The Fair Chance in Housing Act is a housing version of “ban the box” rules that keep employers from automatically dismissing a job candidate because of criminal history.
The New Jersey Apartment Association was neutral on the bills, but president David Brogan said the association believes in second chances. He said recidivism rates will only drop if government gives people with criminal records tools such as job training, financial resources, and proper identification that they need to succeed.
The law won’t apply to owner-occupied properties with a few units.