California county plans to ban landlords from checking criminal history of potential renters

Advocates believe Californians with prior convictions are more likely to become homeless or return to prison if they are consistently denied housing, particularly in the Bay Area.

A county in California intends to outlaw landlords’ screening of prospective tenants because of criminal records.

According to The East Bay Times, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors could formally adopt the “fair chance” ordinance this month, which could benefit formerly incarcerated people in need of housing.

One such person was Lee “Taqwaa” Bonner, 56. While serving a 30-year sentence on a charge of second-degree murder, Bonner started a program to help underprivileged kids. He continued the program and worked as a forklift driver in Fremont following his release in 2016. Still, several apartment complexes rejected him, so he, like many other parolees, resorted to living in his vehicle. Staying with his relatives wasn’t possible for Bonner because they had leases forbidding tenants who had felony convictions on their records.

California fair chance housing
A for-rent sign is posted in front of an apartment building in San Francisco, California. The Bay Area’s Alameda County Board of Supervisors is slated to formally adopt a “fair chance” housing ordinance this month, prohibiting landlords from looking into a tenant’s criminal history. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“Sometimes, you lose your faith in humanity, and it puts you in a state of depression,” Bonner said, according to The East Bay Times. “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?”

Eight million people in California, or almost one in five residents, reportedly have a criminal record. People with prior convictions are more likely to become homeless or return to prison if they are consistently denied housing, particularly in the Bay Area, where there is already a shortage.

Formerly incarcerated individuals are also almost 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general population, according to a 2018 analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative. The stats are particularly true for Black and Latino individuals, who are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system due to their historical economic and social disadvantages.

Elected leaders in the Bay Area and elsewhere have started enacting “fair chance” rules in recent years at the urging of tenant groups, which limit the circumstances in which renters like Bonner can be turned away due to prior arrests or convictions.

He was fortunate that when local news broadcasts covered his quest to find housing, a landlord inspired by his story offered him a lease. Bonner now works with the nonprofit Legal Services of Prisoners with Children, helping formerly jailed people find homes and fight for their rights.

If Alameda County adopts the ordinance, he said, the next step will be to ensure that authorities carry out their obligation to enforce the law, which could include requiring landlords to take criminal history questions off all rental applications.

“The work is not over with,” Bonner said, The Times reported. “It’s all about implementation.”

If a property has four units or fewer and is the owner’s primary residence, the “fair chance” ordinance would not apply. Searching sex offender databases to screen applicants would still be allowed.

The ordinance would go into effect once Alameda County lifts its ban on evictions due to the pandemic. Running criminal background checks for prospective tenants has already been outlawed in San Francisco and the Alameda County cities of Oakland and Berkeley, with few exceptions.

Attorney Daniel Bornstein voiced concerns that such laws could lead to a predicament where someone granted the right to occupy an apartment unit harms another person in the building. Instead, he suggested the ordinance prohibit landlords from refusing to rent to a tenant based on convictions older than a decade.

“This isn’t really a landlord-tenant issue,” Bornstein said, The Times reported. “It’s a community issue.”

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