Berkeley City Council to vote on Fair Chance Ordinance

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At its March 10 meeting, Berkeley City Council will vote on whether or not to approve the Ronald V. Dellums Fair Chance Access to Housing and Public Health and Safety Ordinance, or the Fair Chance Ordinance, which will prohibit landlords from denying housing applications based on criminal history.

The Fair Chance Ordinance was proposed by Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Councilmembers Cheryl Davila, Kate Harrison and Rigel Robinson and was further developed by the Land Use, Housing and Economic Development Committee.

If passed, City Council will direct the city manager to take the necessary steps to implement the ordinance, including consulting with the Rent Stabilization Board, preparing an annual budget and conducting outreach in partnership with the Alameda County Fair Chance Housing Coalition, among others.

“The goal of the ordinance is to make sure that everyone has a secure chance of housing,” Harrison said. “It is a matter of fairness.”

According to a 2019 survey done by the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy, one-third of formerly incarcerated people experienced housing insecurity with 54% of those surveyed also being denied housing or the opportunity to live with a family member because of their criminal record.

Incarceration and lack of housing can also lead to “severely limited” economic opportunities that increase recidivism, or the chances of a convicted criminal to reoffend, according to the ordinance.

By prohibiting landlords from denying housing applicants based on background checks, the Fair Chance Ordinance aims to improve access to housing in Berkeley. The ordinance also hopes to remove barriers faced by formerly incarcerated individuals and reduce homelessness and family separation that is a result of the exclusion of housing applications based on criminal background checks, among others.

Krista Gulbransen, executive director of Berkeley Property Owners Association, however, noted that landlords look for criminal histories of violence, property damage and sexual offenses to ensure the safety of other tenants. She added that if the ordinance passes, landlords will be unable to check an applicant’s criminal background.

“It might make things worse,” Gulbransen said. “The biggest concern for tenants is ‘will someone reoffend?’, ‘will they reoffend on my property?’ and if this will affect other tenants.”

Some exemptions from the ordinance include secondary suites, single-family homes, duplexes and triplexes.

The ordinance also offers partial exemption to housing funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. These exemptions are allowed if landlords comply with federal regulations that require them to automatically exclude tenants based on certain types of criminal history.

According to Berkeley Tenants Union secretary Matthew Lewis, formerly incarcerated people are currently unable to get access to jobs or housing as a result of background checks, so the chance of recidivism “goes up significantly.”

“The ordinance benefits everyone,” Lewis said. “Access to housing makes sure that recidivism goes down and protects everybody.”

Contact Joy Ma at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dcjoyma.