Proposed ordinance may remove criminal background checks for Berkeley tenants

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A proposed ordinance would prohibit landlords in the city of Berkeley from asking about prospective tenants’ criminal histories.

The Ronald V. Dellums Fair Chance Access to Housing and Public Health and Safety Ordinance, also known as the Fair Chance Ordinance, was co-authored by Mayor Jesse Arreguín and City Councilmembers Rigel Robinson, Cheryl Davila and Kate Harrison, representing Districts 7, 2 and 4, respectively. If passed, the ordinance would prevent landlords from advertising or implementing a policy that excludes tenants based on their criminal histories. It would also prohibit landlords from inquiring about criminal backgrounds or taking action against prospective tenants based on previous convictions.

The Fair Chance Ordinance would apply to all housing units and allow landlords to examine the sex offender registry. The ordinance would also grant landlords the discretion to review information including credit scores, as well as employment and income status.

According to Stefan Elgstrand, legislative aide to Arreguín, formerly incarcerated individuals face many obstacles when looking for housing. These challenges place an additional burden on people who, according to Elgstrand, have already paid their dues to society.

“Currently, if a family member wants to welcome someone who was recently released from prison into their home, they are forbidden from doing so and could face eviction if they were to do it,” Elgstrand said in an email. “Clearly, this is tearing families apart at a time when family support is so important. The fact that someone who has paid their dues to society are continued to be punished because of their previous incarceration is inherently unfair.”

Elgstrand added that the ordinance aims to address homelessness and recidivism rates. According to the city of Berkeley’s Homeless Count and Survey, 10% of homeless individuals cited incarceration as the reason for their inability to secure housing. According to Robinson, the Fair Chance Ordinance would help reintegrate formerly incarcerated people into society and avoid the cycle of homelessness and recidivism.

While the ordinance is aimed at improving the quality of life for people with criminal records, some landlords remain concerned by its possible impacts. According to Krista Gulbransen, executive director of the Berkeley Property Owners Association, passing the ordinance would affect the way landlords run their businesses and assess prospective tenants.

She added that the ordinance may not have an immediate impact on addressing homelessness rates of formerly incarcerated individuals, since property owners look at more than criminal history. According to Gulbransen, property owners mainly look for prior violent and sexual offenses in addition to felonies or misdemeanors involving property damage.

“By implementing the Fair Chance Ordinance, you are asking owners to take on 100% of a certain population, knowing that a part of that population might squander that opportunity,” Gulbransen said.

Similar ordinances have been passed in Seattle, Portland and Richmond, Calif. to varying degrees.

Contact Aditya Katewa at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @adkatewa1.