Alameda County is moving to prevent landlords from screening prospective tenants based on their criminal histories, the latest in a growing number of actions by local governments nationwide to make it easier for formerly incarcerated people to find housing.
In January, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors is poised to formally adopt the rule, set to cover most apartment buildings in unincorporated parts of the county, such as Castro Valley and Sunol. It would take effect only after the county chooses to end its ongoing pandemic eviction moratorium.
The new law is meant to help renters like Lee “Taqwaa” Bonner, who was turned away by multiple East Bay apartment complexes after getting out of prison in 2016. Bonner couldn’t move in with family members because their leases wouldn’t allow tenants with felony convictions. So like many other parolees, he moved into his car.
While serving 30 years for a second-degree murder charge, Bonner, 56, had started a program to mentor underserved kids. He continued the outreach work upon his release and found a job as a forklift driver in Fremont.
But the only thing that seemed to matter to landlords was his criminal record.
“Sometimes, you lose your faith in humanity, and it puts you in a state of depression,” Bonner said. “How can I be a productive employee? How can I be a productive father, a productive son, if I cannot get a good night’s sleep?”
At the urging of tenant advocates, elected officials in the Bay Area and beyond have in recent years begun adopting “fair chance” laws that limit when renters like Bonner can be denied because of past convictions or arrests.
The cities of Oakland and Berkeley, both in Alameda County, have prohibited the practice, with few exceptions. San Francisco has as well. And outside the Bay Area, places including Seattle, Portland, New Jersey and Cook County, Illinois, which encompasses Chicago, have put restrictions on running criminal background checks for prospective tenants. New York City also is considering its own fair chance law.
In California, an estimated one in five residents — or 8 million people — have a criminal record. And advocates say when those with past convictions are repeatedly denied housing, they’re more likely to end up homeless or back in prison, especially in the Bay Area where affordable housing is scarce.
Statistics bolster that claim. According to a 2018 report by Prison Policy Initiative, people who have been incarcerated are nearly 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general population. And the problem is more acute, advocates say, for Black and Latino residents, who are overrepresented in the criminal justice system because of longstanding economic and social disadvantages.
Some studies have also shown that background checks can turn up unreliable and inaccurate results, which are then used to refuse tenants.
During a Board of Supervisors meeting in December, Xavier Johnson, director of policy justice at the Just Cities Institute, praised Alameda County’s ordinance as a way to ease its chronic homelessness crisis.
“Equally important, it will help unify families and bring people together,” Johnson said.
The ordinance would not apply to properties with four units or less where an owner lives in the property as their primary residence. And all landlords still would be allowed to search sex offender registries to screen applicants.
Daniel Bornstein, an attorney representing Bay Area landlords, worries fair chance ordinances clear the way for “a scenario where someone who is given the opportunity to occupy a unit harms another person” in an apartment complex. Instead, he suggested the ordinances should only prevent landlords from denying tenants based on convictions that are over 10 years old.
“This isn’t really a landlord-tenant issue — it’s a community issue,” Bornstein said.
Bonner couldn’t afford to wait a decade to find a home. Luckily for him, after his struggle to secure an apartment was detailed in local news reports, a landlord in Dublin was moved by his story and offered him a lease.
Now with stable housing, Bonner works with the nonprofit Legal Services of Prisoners with Children helping formerly incarcerated people find homes and advocating on their behalf.
If Alameda County follows through with its ordinance, Bonner said the next step is to ensure officials follow through with enforcing the rules. One way is to compel landlords to remove criminal background questions from all rental applications.
“The work is not over with,” he said. “It’s all about implementation.”
Comments are closed.