It's no secret that there is a revolving door to the prison system in America today. There are many difficulties and barriers facing those with convictions, even non-violent ones, after their release. Finding steady employment is one such challenge, though "fair chance" and "ban the box" laws in many locales have sought to reduce those barriers. However, there is one need much more pressing than gainful employment upon release: a place to live.
Unfortunately, many formerly incarcerated find that the housing market—already a challenging place today—is especially unfriendly to them. It is legal for landlords to deny applicants housing based on convictions they disclose or that appear on criminal background checks, which may pose a danger to others living in the area. However, even for non-violent offenders, landlords who learn about a criminal conviction through a housing application can simply deny the applicant without specifically naming their past as the reason. Though such blanket denials are illegal, they still occur frequently.
In Wyoming, one man has opened up his own series of homes to recently released offenders, providing a sober living space that allows people a chance to get on their feet. Because arranging housing is often a challenge, especially before release, this arrangement offers the opportunity to have some stability while searching for a job and rebuilding one's life. Although the community needs many more such resources, the nine-bedroom homes offer a vital lifeline that has helped many reintegrate into society.
Some states have tried to adopt the "fair chance" approach in employment by applying the same principles to tenant checks. These efforts have only had mixed success and often face severe headwinds from real estate industry lobbyists and landlords. In Louisiana, for example, a proposed law to place limitations on what convictions a landlord could consider faltered in the face of such opposition. The most stringent provisions were stripped out until the law became a mere reiteration of existing federal policy. Still, the bill failed.
A criminal record can even prevent individuals from enjoying the opportunity to vacation. AirBNB, for example, runs background checks and may disqualify individuals from renting properties if the company identifies certain past offenses. The company is currently at risk of a potential class-action lawsuit related to this practice and how it used the obtained records.
Housing is a critical issue in the criminal justice system. With 16% of all inmates going through a period of homelessness before incarceration, housing insecurity contributes measurably to crime. Likewise, the lack of stable and affordable housing for inmates upon release may contribute to high recidivism rates. For landlords, it is a complex issue—no one should discriminate unfairly against applicants, but safety is a real concern.
Using a set of best practices for screening tenants is the answer, and keeping an open mind. By considering all the facts about a tenant, you can deliver a fairer, more even-keeled process—and possibly help someone begin rebuilding their life along the way.
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