California county to ban background checks for housing

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(NewsNation) — One California county has become the first in the country to ban landlords from doing criminal background checks on prospective renters.

Officials in Alameda County, which covers much of the eastern part of the San Francisco Bay Area —including Oakland — voted to adopt a Fair Chance housing ordinance barring landlords from using criminal records when considering prospective tenants.

The move is meant to curb housing discrimination against formerly incarcerated people.

The ordinance follows similar efforts in New York, where a bill on Gov. Kathy Hochul’s desk would, if signed, ban criminal background checks for any person trying to get into New York City Public Housing but could also be expanded to cover all buildings in the city.

Jason Nichols, a University of Maryland lecturer and Democratic strategist, said people are free to contract with their tenants, and part of the contract that landlords would have in their leases is that they have to pass a criminal background check.

“How is this ordinance in compliance with more than a century of settled law? And in practicality, how exactly can you make sure that someone who you’re renting to isn’t going to steal the refrigerator,” Nichols said. “I mean, this has been a basic part of landlord-tenant agreements forever that the government is now upending, I believe in an unconstitutional manner.”

Dan O’Donnell, host of “The Dan O’Donnell Show,” said California previously tried this in Oakland and it was successful, which is why the ban is being expanded.

The law, which will require a second vote to be formally adopted, applies only to the unincorporated parts of the countywhich include San Lorenzo, Castro Valley, Sunol, Fairview and Ashland; the cities of Oakland and Berkeley, which are part of Alameda County, previously passed municipal laws banning criminal background checks for housing.

The legislation also comes amid a worsening homelessness crisis in the state.

“One of the things we need to also recognize is that the rate of homelessness for the formerly incarcerated is higher than the rest of the country,” O’Donnell said. “

A University of California, Berkeley, survey in 2019 estimated that 73% of people living in Oakland encampments were formerly incarcerated, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Out of 9,700 unhoused people counted in Alameda County’s 2022 homelessness survey, 30% said they had experienced interactions with the criminal legal system in the past year, with 7% directly attributing their homelessness to incarceration.

“We know that housing instability also leads to incarceration. Those who are housing insecure are 11 times more likely to be incarcerated,” O’Donnell said. “So, if you don’t want people outside of your business, or your home with a tent, and defecating on the sidewalk, perhaps you should allow for them to get shelter and housing.”

Housing providers refusing tenants based on their records can also prevent families from reuniting after a prison sentence, advocates say.

Meanwhile, opponents argue background checks are an important safety measure.

“Why is it all of a sudden landlords aren’t able to do the exact same thing that everyone else in society is to essentially make sure that the person they’re going to contract with, they’re going to rent a home to, they’re going to share their property with isn’t going to be a threat to them, the property or their neighbors?” Nichols said.

Proponents note that landlords still have wide discretion in how they select tenants and that the ordinance allows tenants to be considered based on the merits of their applications.

Alameda County’s new ordinance allows landlords to review the sex offender registry.

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