A year to the day after the City Council voted to make Seattle the first city to outlaw criminal background checks for potential tenants, the Prison Policy Initiative released a report which found that formerly incarcerated people are about ten times more likely to be homeless than people without criminal records. The primary cause for the rate of homelessness among this population? Blanket bans on renting to people with criminal records.
The Fair Chance Housing Ordinance that passed last August and became effective this year removes the blanket ban in the city, and has the potential to help a municipality that is, in many respects, the worst in the nation when it comes to managing and alleviating homelessness. That is, if it stays on the books.
The ordinance is being challenged by a group of landlords who sued the city earlier this year to invalidate and repeal it, citing safety and other liability concerns about renting to people with criminal pasts.
While the Prison Policy Initiative study plainly demonstrates the danger posed to society by not renting to people with records, close examination of the data also reveals the upsides of renting to people with criminal activity in their pasts. Ultimately, what the research accomplished was to show that the safety and liability concerns used to justify not renting to people with criminal records are unfounded.
In the lawsuit, the landlords cite only one story where a woman was murdered in Illinois by another tenant who had a criminal past.
The plaintiffs missed the case in North Carolina where a woman was murdered by another felony-convicted tenant and a jury found that the leasing agency was liable for her death for failing to run a background check. They also missed a case where a man in Wisconsin shot his landlord over a $30 rent increase. He had a record, too.
On the surface, these stories — a total of three known and documented instances of violence by a tenant with a criminal record — should help make the case that renting to people with records is high risk. But they don’t do that. They do the opposite.
The Prison Policy Initiative’s research admits that there are millions of cases where felons secured apartments and housing and nothing happened. The study found that 203 out of every 10,000 formerly incarcerated people are homeless and nearly three times as many — 570 out of every 10,000 — were housing insecure, meaning they were in tenuous situations like rooming houses.
That means that 9,227 out of every 10,000 or 4,613,500 of the 5 million-person study sample had secured housing. And only three of them had reoffended.
The fact that some people made a successful end run around discriminatory practices in leasing doesn’t mean that blanket bans on people with criminal records aren’t negatively impacting this population and the cities where they reside.
What it does show is that when people with records do enter into leases it’s highly likely that they’ll do so without incident.
That’s not to say that violent acts like murders are inconsequential if committed in small numbers; one is too many. But their likelihood is so low that fearing that tenants with records will be violent or endanger other renters isn’t a significant enough risk to justify canceling the Fair Chance Housing Ordinance, a policy that will reap rewards of reduced recidivism and decreased homelessness for Seattle residents.
I’m not sure why no one has studied the qualitative experience of renting to ex-offenders. Universities and advocacy organizations have surveyed employers of people with criminal records; they almost unilaterally report that the ex-offenders perform better than people without records. They have researched people with criminal records as students; there’s no increased risk of crime on campus for justice-involved enrollees.
But for one of the most basic human needs — shelter — no one has gathered affirmative evidence that the risk in renting to this population is overstated, hyped by a cottage industry of background check companies who profit off of fear of people who’ve paid the price for their errors and were corrected for it.
Chandra Bozelko is the author of "Up the River Anthology" and blogs about her prison experiences at prison-diaries (dot) com.
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