Ban the Box Reaches Rental Applications in Detroit

By Michael Klazema on 11/19/2019

“Ban the box” policies are laws and ordinances that prohibit some inquiries into criminal history, and they are not new. For years, cities, counties, and states have been implementing ban the box legislation. Most of those policies relate to employment, barring employers from asking about criminal history on their job applications. Ban the box is starting to take root in another area: housing. 

In February 2019, Detroit, Michigan passed a ban the box policy that applies to housing applications in the city. Eight-and-a-half years earlier, Detroit’s City Council voted to ban the box on job applications for public or city jobs. In 2012, the city started requiring its vendors and contractors to remove questions about past criminal history from their job applications. So far, Detroit has not extended its ban the box policy to private employers. 

In 2019, the city passed and implemented the “Fair Chance Access to Rental Housing,” joining a growing number of major cities and counties nationwide that have banned the box on rental applications, including Seattle. 

The Detroit policy does not extend to all rental applications. Landlords with fewer than five rental units are exempt and may ask about a prospective tenant’s criminal history on the tenant application or during the initial screening process. Landlords managing five or more rental units must comply with the ban the box policy, which went into effect August 2019. 

The law requires landlords to strike any questions about criminal history from their rental applications. Landlords are not allowed to ask about criminal history during the interview process or conduct tenant background checks until they have offered the tenant a conditional lease. 

The conditional lease requirement mimics a common stipulation in employment ban the box policies. Ban the box ordinances typically bar employers from conducting any criminal background check until after a candidate has proven that he or she is qualified for the job and hirable. Employers can then make a job offer that is conditional on the completion of a background check. This conditional offer leaves an opening for employers to reject job finalists with severe red flags on their records, but the system is designed to give candidates with criminal histories an opportunity to prove their worth to employers before their criminal past becomes the center of the conversation. 

The same is true for Detroit’s ban the box policy, which is intended to give landlords a chance to get to know prospective tenants without the bias that they may form against individuals who answer “Yes” to a criminal history application question. One of the stated goals of the ordinance is to prevent discrimination against ex-convicts, who often struggle to find housing in Detroit (and other cities) due to their criminal histories. 

Landlords must abide by these regulations when drawing up job applications or creating policies for tenant background checks. A first violation of the Detroit law results in a warning, but subsequent violations are misdemeanor offenses, punishable by either jail time (up to 90 days) or a fine (up to $500). 

Landlords in other cities should also keep an eye on pending legislation in case similar requirements become active or pass in the near future. Use the blog to hear about breaking news and developments in background screenings across the country.

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