The Fight for Fair-Chance Housing Ordinances

By Jake Bittle, Curbed

Illustration by  Leonard Peng .

Illustration by Leonard Peng.

When Willette Benford was released from prison earlier this year, she knew that finding housing in Chicago would be a struggle. She didn’t have a steady job and was staying on a temporary basis at a homeless shelter—and friends who’d been released from prison in the past told her that no landlord would rent to someone with a felony conviction on their record.

It didn’t matter, Benford says, that the conviction had been the result of a domestic violence dispute that occurred more than two decades earlier, or that Benford was given an immediate release from prison when Illinois updated its domestic violence laws. Too many landlords in the city, especially those who rented affordable housing, had “blanket ban” policies that would cause them to deny her outright.

“People don’t know the whole story,” she says. “They just look at the paper, and they’re immediately afraid. They don’t know the details, and they just make the assumption that everyone’s still guilty. Then they deny you housing, which is just a basic necessity—and then where else are you supposed to go?”

In late April, Benford was one of several formerly incarcerated people who stood before the Cook County Board of Commissioners and told her story. She was testifying in support of a law that would prohibit most landlords from denying people housing on the basis of a criminal conviction. After years of pressure by activists with the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance, the ordinance finally passed, 15 votes to two.

The victory in Cook County, the second-most-populous county in the United States, is the latest in a burgeoning nationwide movement to ensure housing for returning citizens. Following the success of “ban-the-box” initiatives that prohibit employees from asking about criminal records, activists in nearly a dozen major cities are now campaigning for the passage of “fair-chance housing ordinances” that would prohibit landlords from denying applicants with prior convictions. In doing so, these advocates are also fighting to change the public’s perception of formerly incarcerated people.

Criminal-justice reformers have stressed the intersection of housing justice and mass incarceration for decades. Recently released or paroled individuals are far more likely to experience homelessness, often because their criminal records prevent them from getting approved for an apartment, and those who do experience homelessness are far more likely to be incarcerated again. In this way, a conviction from decades past can cast a shadow over a returning citizen’s safety and stability, as well as the safety and stability of their family members.

Research has shown that many formerly incarcerated people experience discrimination when applying for apartments. A report from the Ella Baker Center found that 80 percent of such people said they had experienced difficulty accessing housing. It didn’t matter what their conviction was for, or how long ago it had occurred—many of them said they were denied housing outright because of “blanket ban” policies maintained by many private landlords and public housing authorities. And if formerly incarcerated people return to live with their family members in housing where there is such a ban, they put those families at risk of losing their housing.

African Americans with criminal convictions face this discrimination especially acutely, according to a report from the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. An audit of several dozen landlords across the city found that landlords applied conviction policies inconsistently across races more than half the time, discriminating more harshly against black renters than non-black renters.

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Olivia McDowellComment