Proposed Tenant Background Check Bans Draw Criticism

By Michael Klazema on 9/29/2020

For the formerly incarcerated, the process of re-entering society involves a difficult path with many challenges. Advocates of reform have made consistent efforts to simplify that path, including "ban the box" laws to expand access to employment opportunities. A stable, safe place to live is also difficult to find for many people with criminal records. 

According to reform proponents, landlords use criminal background checks as a tool for discrimination, excluding those with past charges or prison time from consideration for rental housing. With the potential for automatic disqualification when they apply, the formerly incarcerated may find it almost impossible to secure stable housing. In New York, advocates have dubbed this process the "prison to shelter pipeline" as many individuals transition from prison straight to homeless shelters. 

Aiming to combat ongoing concerns about lack of access to housing, the New York City Council considered bills in September 2020 to address the problem. One such bill would bar the use of tenant background checks, such as the US OneSEARCH by, to examine a housing applicant's criminal record. The bill would also outlaw asking applicants about their criminal histories and making decisions based on the answer. At the same time, the city council will consider adopting a bill to strengthen the city's ban on housing denials due to an applicant's source of income.

Advocates and some members of the City Council contend that these efforts will continue to chip away at the inequality that may contribute to higher rates of recidivism. By increasing access to housing for individuals with a criminal record or on public assistance, advocates hope that those affected will prosper in a more stable living environment. 

Landlords, brokers, and advocates for property owners all contend that such rules not only curtail an owner's rights but also make communities less safe. Although the laws would still require landlords to ensure that they do not violate minimum distance laws regarding sex offenders, some opponents argue that neighbors would not be able to trust one another. 

New York is not the first locale to consider implementing such bans on background checks for prospective tenants. On the west coast, Seattle and San Francisco have already passed similar bans. So has Richmond, Virginia in the east.

As of mid-September, the New York City Council has scheduled further debate and discussion on the topic of tenant background checks with no firm date for a final vote. Should the city ultimately pass the new rules, it would become one of the largest municipalities to alter the way that landlords can screen tenants. 

While it's unclear whether such a change would create a ripple effect into other communities, property owners should stay up to date on the subject and remain informed on the critical laws that govern their industry.

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