As 2022 came to a close, Alameda County became the first county in the nation to pass an ordinance protecting housing rights for formerly incarcerated people by banning landlords from using criminal background checks against potential tenants, according to media reports.
“I want folks to understand that every human being deserves a roof over their heads. Housing stability is directly tied to having stability in every other aspect of life,” said John Jones III prior to a five-hour public hearing on Dec. 6 about the ordinance, according to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Jones is a formerly incarcerated man who works for the Berkeley-based nonprofit Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency. He experienced being homeless for 18 months after his release from prison in 2012, and was only able to secure long-term, stable housing for his family in 2020 after Oakland passed similar housing rights regulations.
Known as the “Fair Chance’’ ordinance, the new rule will apply to any unincorporated areas of the county. While some cities such as Oakland, Berkeley, Seattle and Portland have passed similar rules, Alameda County’s ordinance could set a standard for other counties around the country to follow.
Voted into law by county supervisors on Dec. 20, 2022, the Fair Chance ordinance prohibits property owners and managers from requiring potential tenants to disclose prior arrests or convictions, or from using advertising that discourages formerly incarcerated people from applying. However, housing providers would still be allowed to check sex offender registries.
According to the Chronicle, opponents of the ordinance claimed that such policies increase the liability exposure of landlords, limit their control over their properties, and cause other unintended problems.
“Nobody is against tenants’ rights,” said Frances Sagapolu, a property owner who testified at the hearing. Sagapolu said that such county policies may “prevent us from protecting our property and doing business. How is this fair?”
In 2019, prior to the enactment of Oakland’s housing-rights ordinance, a survey led by UC Berkeley determined 73% of people living in the city’s homeless encampments were formerly incarcerated.
The Chronicle article said proponents for such nondiscriminatory housing policies claim there is a “direct pipeline from prison to homelessness that fair-chance housing laws interrupt.”
One of these proponents is Margaretta Lin, executive director of Just Cities and one of the leaders of the Fair Chance Housing Coalition.
“I work with so many people who now have steady employment and enough money to pay the rent, but are still barred from rental housing because of something they did years ago,” Lin said. “So where are people supposed to live?”
Supporters of the ordinance say it will not only benefit the formerly incarcerated but also their families by helping to reduce homelessness, family separation, and recidivism.
The movement for fair-chance housing policies follows successful efforts to pass similar “ban-the-box” laws for employment applications, such as California’s Fair Chance Act of 2018.