City Council

Council Bars Landlords from Using Criminal Records

"Regardless of my criminal history, I deserve housing. We all deserve housing."

By Hayat Norimine August 14, 2017

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It just became much easier for those with criminal backgrounds to find housing.

Seattle council members unanimously approved legislation that would prohibit landlords from screening applicants based on criminal history. The new ordinance adds a chapter to the Seattle Municipal Code placing restrictions on property owners' use of criminal background checks—it bars implementing policies excluding people who have arrest or conviction records, asking about criminal history, and carrying any kind of "adverse action" based on their records. It also protects tenants from retaliation.

Mayor Ed Murray announced the proposal in June as part of his action plan and the 2015 Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda recommendations. The legislation comes after the city in 2013 implemented its Fair Chance Employment legislation barring employers from using criminal backgrounds to screen job applicants. The city estimates a cost of $99,000 to implement the law, according to the fiscal note. 

Herbold credited those with criminal records for sharing their stories and their "courage," and said no matter the data, "what actually creates social change is our collective awareness of these lived experiences."

In front of council members Monday, many supporters—several that said they had felony records—spoke in favor of the legislation and talked about their criminal histories becoming major barriers to finding a place to live. 

"Regardless of my criminal history, I deserve housing. We all deserve housing," said Zackary Tutwiler, who works for Real Change, in front of council members Monday. 

It's a part of the solution to addressing the homelessness crisis, said council member Lisa Herbold, whose committee approved the bill, as those with criminal backgrounds struggle to secure housing—and pay for it. Herbold in late July also helped launch a pilot program that gives those accused of a crime, while they're battling a lawsuit, to access attorneys who can help advocate for them to keep their housing. 

Herbold said no studies have shown a link between criminal history and tenant violations, adding that using criminal background checks is an extrajudicial punishment that leads to recidivism. An estimated 30 percent of Seattle residents over the age of 18 have an arrest or conviction and 7 percent have felony records, according to the city. 

Landlords can still use employment, credit scores, income ratios, or other criteria, and there are some exceptions—property owners can still use the sex offender registry available online, provided they give a "legitimate business reason" for doing so. The bill also doesn't apply to single-family dwelling units in which the owner lives in part of the unit. 

The bill passed with a 8-0 vote.(Council member Kshama Sawant was absent.) Parts of the ordinance becomes law 150 days after Murray signs it to give the city time to polish a larger Fair Housing Home program.

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