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California Easing Housing Hurdles for Released Prisoners

by Ed Lyon

As retributive minded states likeTexas pursue ever more draconian measures and policies to deny housing to released prisoners (PLN, May 2021, pp. 34-35), California is beginning to enact measures and policies to assist released prisoners in obtaining housing.

Easing housing restrictions for the formerly incarcerated began in 2020, with “Fair Chance” ordinances that prohibited landlords from performing criminal background checks on rental housing applicants in Berkely and Oakland. As a result, a full 33% of applicants surveyed reported they have been able to reunite with family or secure their own housing because of those new ordinances, according to Margaretta Wan-Ling Lin, a University of California researcher and Executive Director of the nonprofit Just Cities.

Since then, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors passed its own Fair Chance on December 20, 2022 – the first county in the U.S. to protect formerly incarcerated citizens from housing discrimination. The county is home to over 5,000 former prisoners and detainees, who are hugely overrepresented in its homeless population; a 2022 survey found that at least 30% of 9,700 homeless people had interactions with the criminal justice system, and 7% pointed the finger directly at their criminal record for the cause of their current homelessness.

The law is not perfect: In barring landlords from performing criminal background checks, it makes an exception for sex offenders, allowing landlords to access the sex offender registry for housing applicants. This Fair Chance law became effective at the end of April 2023, when the county’s pandemic eviction moratorium expired.

About 20% of Californians – roughly 8 million citizens – have criminal records. That means they risk living in the elements at any time as a result of housing restrictions.

San Francisco county and city also passed a Fair Chance law. But the ordinance is restricted to affordable housing. It also permits landlords to take into consideration convictions connected to property safety.

Portland and Seattle have also passed Fair Chance laws, along with a limited version adopted in Illinois’ Cook County.

“I committed a crime and went to prison, and I paid my debt,” said Lee Bonner, of the California housing advocacy group All of Us or None. “So why punish my family?” 

Source: The Guardian