A criminal record often poses a significant barrier for individuals in the process of re-integrating into society. Even those who did little, or no jail time can find that what appears on their background check causes some doors to close before they truly open. While many often think of these problems primarily in relation to employment opportunities, a record of conviction can make it hard to find a place to live — especially in big cities where competition for available housing is high.
In the employment arena, "ban the box" laws offer one solution. These require employers to delay background checks to ensure businesses consider all aspects of a candidate instead of rejecting those with a record outright. However, fair housing advocates in New York City wanted to go one step farther to ensure broader access to housing — they called for a complete end to tenant background screening altogether.
Members of the City Council initially proposed a draft text of such a bill in August of 2020. Under the terms of the new criminal history bill, owners and landlords of such properties as condos, apartment buildings, and co-op structures would no longer be able to use background checks on tenants. Denials based solely on criminal history have been a long-standing problem in the NYC housing market, and even Mayor Bill de Blasio signaled that he supported the bill.
Heated debate surrounded the proposal, which was brought to the forefront again during the city's final council session of 2021. While initial signs seemed to indicate that the bill was poised to pass, new and united opposition from landlord advocacy groups swayed enough council members. It became clear that too many supporters would switch their votes, and the bill was not brought forward for a final vote.
Landlords applauded the move as an important step for continuing to protect both their own investments and the tenants who live together as neighbors. On the opposite side of the aisle, advocates for the bill pledged that their fight was not over. With a new City Council coming into office in 2022, it is possible the bill, or a new version of its text could make its way to the council floor once again.
Using criminal background check products can provide important information when considering whether to hire or rent to an individual. However, the way landlords have historically used this information often strays too far into actions that could seem discriminatory. How can landlords use these tools without restricting access to housing beyond reasonable concerns?
Landlords should strongly consider relying on the same "EEOC factors" that employers use to evaluate job applicants fairly. Taking into account facts such as time elapsed, rehabilitative efforts, and the nature of the crime in question can all lead to a more well-rounded outcome. Instead of ordering a report, seeing a past charge, and rejecting the application outright, a thorough consideration affords every individual applicant the respect and opportunity they deserve.
About Michael Klazema The author
Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based backgroundchecks.com with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments