A New Jersey single father of two convicted of drug offenses has been sober for almost two years and has been out of prison for about three. The man, who is in his 30s, has a stable job working for a union and has enough money for a security deposit and to make rent payments.
“Yet he can’t find an apartment that’s willing to take him because of his felony conviction,” said Priscilla Carmona, a cofounder of the Jersey City-based organization SCORES Reentry, which provides services to formerly incarcerated people throughout New Jersey.
After nine months, he was able to get a room in a boardinghouse. His children are staying with family while he keeps trying to find an apartment where they can live together.
New Jersey lawmakers are attempting to keep landlords from automatically disqualifying potential tenants who have criminal histories. Instead, bills under consideration encourage landlords to assess each applicant as an individual, taking into account factors such as severity of a crime and the amount of time since it occurred.
If the legislation passes, New Jersey would be the first with a statewide law limiting when landlords can consider criminal histories in evaluating tenants, according to advocates. Newark, Seattle, and Washington are among the cities with similar ordinances.
Arrests and convictions can be stubborn barriers keeping potential tenants from renting homes years or decades after their release. Tens of millions of adults in the country have some form of criminal record. It can be “almost impossible” for them to find stable housing, but a law like the one New Jersey lawmakers are attempting to pass “closes the gap just a little bit,” Carmona said.
“It’s absolutely important to be able to open up housing for individuals coming home,” she said. “Housing is a human right.”
Black and Hispanic people are disproportionately arrested, convicted, and incarcerated in the United States, so they also are most harmed by housing policies banning anyone with a record. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has found that although people with criminal records are not a protected population under the Fair Housing Act, “criminal history-based restrictions on housing opportunities violate the act if, without justification, their burden falls more often on renters or other housing market participants of one race or national origin over another.”
New Jersey’s Fair Chance in Housing Act would prohibit landlords from asking about a potential tenant’s criminal history before offering conditional acceptance. Exceptions include applicants who are on sex-offender registries for life. Landlords would not be permitted at any time to consider expunged or sealed records, juvenile records, or charges that did not result in conviction. After conditional offers of housing, landlords can consider convictions for murder, aggravated sexual assault, arson, and certain other crimes. The severity of other crimes determines how far back a landlord can consider.
The law would not apply to owner-occupied properties with a few units, properties that are often the most affordable.
Stable housing goes hand-in-hand with stable employment to help prevent recidivism. The legislation has been billed as a housing version of “ban the box” rules that keep employers from automatically dismissing potential employees, but the housing bills go further.
Landlords argue background checks help ensure the safety of other tenants and help keep crime away from their properties. But advocates say stereotypes about people who have been incarcerated incorrectly paint them all as dangerous and bad tenants.
Landlords still can choose to withdraw conditional offers of housing based on criminal history if “necessary to fulfill a substantial, legitimate, and nondiscriminatory interest,” according to the legislation. Applicants can challenge the accuracy of their records and provide evidence of mitigating factors. Property owners who violate the law face fines of thousands of dollars.
The New Jersey Apartment Association is neutral on the bill in its current form, said David Brogan, executive director of the association.
“NJAA believes in second chances and both Assemblyman [Benjie] Wimberly and Senator [Troy] Singleton tackled a very difficult issue,” Brogan said in a statement. “Having said that, while the advocates point to housing as the primary cause of recidivism, the real drivers are the lack of both job training and financial resources, coupled with inadequate mental health assistance and proper identification. Until government takes responsibility to properly reintegrate ex-offenders into society and give them the tools to succeed, recidivism rates will not drop.”
Singleton (D., Burlington), the legislation’s Senate sponsor, said the bills help advance civil rights and criminal justice reform.
“What we are seeking to make sure is that people who have paid their debt to society are allowed to move on with their lives in a productive way,” Singleton said. “Access to housing after incarceration is truly a stabilizing force for so many.”
Nafeesah Goldsmith, an advocate for formerly incarcerated people who spent nearly 13 years in prison on robbery and kidnapping charges, sometimes slept in her car at truck stops or behind a Walmart when she didn’t have a place to stay.
“I filled out applications to several apartment complexes throughout the state and was denied all of them. Because of that question of ‘Do you have a felony?’” she said. “It was quite discouraging.”
Goldsmith, a lead organizer for New Jersey Prison Justice Watch, now rents a home from a man who was himself formerly incarcerated. Goldsmith said she can’t fully support the bill because of the exceptions it carves out.
“No one, regardless of the crime, should be denied housing,” she said. “That’s period, point blank.”
She said people convicted of certain “heinous” crimes also should have access to housing even if they can’t live in certain areas.
James Williams, director of racial justice policy at Fair Share Housing Center, said that banning people with criminal records from housing is a newer version of redlining, “stopping people from having a fair and equal chance to live in a home.”
“Once an individual has paid their debt to society, it is society’s job to eliminate barriers that would stop these individuals from being successful,” Williams said.
He called Seattle’s ordinance, which goes further than New Jersey’s legislation, “the gold standard.”
Mike Chin, enforcement manager at the Seattle Office for Civil Rights, said the ordinance has changed how people find housing in the city since it took effect in 2018. Landlords cannot ask tenants about their criminal histories, no matter how recent, with a few exceptions.
“There’s a lot of bias and stereotypes around people with criminal histories that still prevent people from being considered for housing even if they’re qualified because they have a mark on their record,” Chin said.
Seattle deploys “testers” around the city to look at landlords’ screening criteria and to talk to leasing agents and property owners to make sure they are following the law.
“Even though we have a good law in place, there are instances where landlords are still using other methods to screen out applicants,” Chin said. “And that’s the harder lift.”
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The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.