Debate: Should landlords rent to convicts?

Jul 29, 2017, 9:03 AM
"Fair Chance Housing" rules would limit criminal background checks as a tool for rental home owners...
"Fair Chance Housing" rules would limit criminal background checks as a tool for rental home owners (AP).
LISTEN: Debate: Nick Straley and Sean Martin on Fair Chance Housing

Should a landlord be allowed to turn away a tenant with a criminal conviction?

Tenant rights and Seattle’s homelessness crisis are at the heart of the debate over fair chance housing. At opposite ends are Nick Straley, a Columbia Legal Services attorney, and Sean Martin, legal counsel for the Rental Housing Association of Washington.

RELATED: Finding creative solutions to Tacoma’s homeless crisis

Both men joined Seattle’s Morning News on KIRO Radio for a debate on fair chance housing – and their conversation illustrates just how complicated the issue is.

What is fair chance housing?

Fair chance housing would limit a landlord’s ability to look into a rental applicant’s criminal history. A new law might ensure these records be limited to two years prior to the application date. (Some critics argue criminal background checks should be altogether banned when it comes to applying for housing.)

Currently, the Fair Housing Act does not view people with criminal records as a protected class.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced a fair chance housing policy for the city in June. The legislation prohibits rental advertisements from having “blanket exclusions of criminal history.” It also prohibits landlords from asking about any convictions older than two years, arrests that did not lead to a conviction, convictions that have been vacated, and juvenile records.

How can it help?

Straley, a supporter of the bill, says it can help address issues of homelessness and mass incarceration and increase public safety.

“About 30 percent of people in King County have a criminal record,” said Straley. “It is a tremendous obstacle to getting employed and getting housed. And one of the things that I think we can all agree on is that we’d like to increase public safety.

“The reality is that getting people housed makes us safer because crime rates go down. Empirical evidence is absolutely rock-solid on that point. The more people housed, the safer we are. So, one of the things that should be done is to remove criminal records as a barrier to housing. There’s no proof that it creates any safer tenancies. And it will address one of the serious issues that the city of Seattle is confronting right now in homelessness. Between 60 to 70 percent of people on the streets have a criminal record. It’s incredibly difficult to get people off the streets with that record because it’s impediment to finding housing.”

Straley has a point — incarceration is a big issue for Americans on both sides of the aisle. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and its prison population has quadrupled over the past 30 years to 2.3 million people. The war on drugs was a major contributor to that growth, which has resulted in a number of racial inequities: Black people are 10 times more likely than whites to be arrested for drug crimes, according to The Huffington Post, and nearly 50 percent of the people incarcerated for drug offenses are black (even though both white and black people are equally likely to use drugs at the same rate). Black people are also more likely to be wrongfully-convicted and are more likely to receive longer sentences compared to whites with the same criminal history.

This is an important consideration when it comes to fair chance housing: if criminal convictions disproportionately affect people of color, then the use of criminal histories to determine tenancy is more likely to deny housing to people of color.

According to Straley, a criminal history rarely has bearing on someone’s ability to be a good renter.

“There is no empirical evidence that it makes anybody safer,” he said. “The research demonstrates, when all other factors are taken off the table, people with criminal records and people without criminal records do about equally well in housing.”

If criminal records were taken off the table, rental home owners would still be able to check credit scores, seek past landlord references and require income verification.

The argument for landlords

Sean Martin, Director of External Affairs for the Rental Housing Association of Washington, believes there’s a group that has not been heard: landlords.

Martin agrees that mass incarceration and homelessness are issues in Seattle.

“I don’t want a misconception to be out there that landlords are just ignoring the problem or kind of have our heads in the sand,” said Martin. “But we want the solution to be a partnership with the city…

“Landlords didn’t create that problem. Let’s find ways that we can work with landlords to get people housed. And we have some ideas and there are some programs out there that work, but they’re not utilized, they’re not supported enough.”

Martin notes that there’s a serious financial risk involved for rental housing owners.

“Nick (Straley), for all the advocacy work that he does and he’s very passionate about it, and for the council members that are bringing this issue forward, none of them to my knowledge are rental housing owners and they don’t have a huge pile of money involved, where for our members or the small, individual folks who own one or two units, this is a retirement asset. And so there is a great deal of concern when it comes to ‘this is my nest egg, and I want to protect it’.”

To Martin’s point, there are existing federal guidelines for landlords, including the ability to have eviction civil records and credit checks (in addition to criminal records). Further, landlords must have a “business case” to deny someone tenancy. To mitigate the risk of losing the home, Martin says some landlords like to rely on criminal records checks. After all, property that houses a criminal activity (like a meth lab) can be legally seized, even if the owner wasn’t living there or responsible.

“There seems to be this thought… that rental housing a public commodity,” said Martin. “It’s not a public space.”

Listen to the full debate, here, as Martin suggests alternatives that don’t place a burden on landlords and both Martin and Straley look toward the next step in the fair chance housing process.

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Debate: Should landlords rent to convicts?