After being released from prison in 2011, Kandra Clark spent five years sleeping on friends’ couches while looking for a new home in New York City.
She had a full-time job, but landlords routinely refused Ms. Clark’s rent requests, citing background checks that she believed marked her fraud-related conviction. Ms Clark, 37, who is now an executive at a nonprofit that helps previously incarcerated people, eventually found a landlord who accepted her application, in Queens, but the process was “tiring and grueling,” she said.
Now New York City is likely to join a number of other cities in limiting landlords’ ability to screen tenants based on their criminal records, which could affect thousands of people seeking housing in the city.
A bill to be tabled in the city council on Thursday would, with few exceptions, prohibit landlords and real estate agents from requesting a person’s criminal record, and prohibit them from refusing housing because of previous arrests or convictions. The mayor has indicated that he is in a favorable position.
Criminal background checks are often a routine part of applying for an apartment in New York City and elsewhere, and landlord advocates and industry groups insist the practices are essential.
Nicole Upano, assistant vice president of the National Apartment Association, said criminal background checks are “a critical part of a rental provider’s effort to keep their apartment communities, residents and staff safe.”
But a growing number of places in the country, including New Jersey, San Francisco and Cook County in Illinois, which includes Chicago, have curtailed landlords’ ability to monitor and screen tenants based on their criminal records.
Such practices put people at risk of homelessness and recidivism, according to politicians and housing advocates, and disproportionately affect black and Latino communities that are overrepresented in the justice system.
A similar bill failed to pass the New York City Council last year after property owners and landlord groups lobbied against it.
But this year, a new city council has signaled a more progressive approach to criminal justice, and the bill already has the support of more than 30 of the 51 city councilors. In a housing plan released this year, Mayor Eric Adams said he would support a bill “creating new anti-discrimination protections for New Yorkers with criminal histories.”
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Adams deputy press secretary Charles Kretchmer Lutvak said in a statement: “No one should be denied housing because they were once involved in the criminal justice system, plain and simple.”
According to the Fair Chance for Housing, a group that has advocated the passage of the bill, an estimated 750,000 New York City residents have been criminally convicted. A 2018 report from the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit advocating for criminal justice reform, found that previously incarcerated people are nearly 10 times more likely to become homeless than the general public.
The pressure in New York City comes as officials have struggled with a rise in homelessness after the worst of the pandemic, underscoring how the city’s housing crisis has made it increasingly difficult to find affordable homes.
According to a tally prepared by the news site City Limits, more than 50,000 people stayed in shelters in New York City last week, and Mr. Adams has made tackling homelessness a main focus in his first year in office.
Keith Powers, a Manhattan councilor and one of the sponsors on the bill, said he hears daily from New Yorkers concerned about homelessness and making housing more accessible. “Here we have a tool that can achieve that,” he said.
Several states and cities have taken steps to prevent employers from asking about criminal convictions during the initial hiring process in what has come to be known as the “ban the box” movement.
In 2016, the Obama administration said private landlords who imposed a blanket ban on renting to those with criminal records — rather than taking into account each applicant’s criminal record, the nature of the crime, and the length of time since conviction — may be in violation. with federal law. And in April, Marcia L. Fudge, the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, ordered the Department to review its programs to ensure they are “as inclusive as possible for individuals with criminal histories.”
The New York City bill makes some exceptions. It would not apply to single- or two-family homes where the owner also lives. It doesn’t stop landlords from checking to see if a potential tenant is a registered sex offender.
Under the bill, anyone who believes they have been discriminated against because of their criminal history can sue a landlord or file a complaint with the New York City Commission on Human Rights.
But it’s unclear how prepared the city is to enforce the bill’s provisions. It is already struggling to enforce a law that prevents discrimination in housing for people who depend on rental vouchers.
The bill is likely to face opposition from some property owners and industry associations.
A spokesperson for the Real Estate Board of New York, an industry group for brokers and property owners that had previously opposed a version of the bill, said the group will “review all legislation on the matter.”
Vito Signorile, a vice president with the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents about 25,000 owners, said the group helped beat the bill last year, in part because tenants in more than 40 counties had raised concerns about their safety. He said the new council is likely to meet similar resistance.
“Everyone deserves a second chance,” he said. “But there has to be a line in terms of who vets you to rent an apartment in your building.”