Landlords Barred From Using Criminal Records to Deny Housing

Freed at 42 after more than a decade in New Jersey prisons, Boris Franklin scrambled for a place to live.

First he lived with one of his sisters. Then another.

Convicted of manslaughter after a drug deal that turned deadly, he quickly learned he could not lease an apartment on his own.

“It got to the point where I’d ask, ‘Before I pay the $50 application fee, what will happen?’” said Mr. Franklin, who is now 48.

“And they’d say, ‘Don’t bother putting the application in.’”

On Thursday, New Jersey lawmakers approved a landmark bill that bars landlords from asking about criminal convictions on housing applications, marking a major step in a yearslong effort to create a system where people’s past mistakes do not perpetually derail them.

Cities including Newark, San Francisco and Seattle have adopted similar legislation, and Colorado in 2019 offered limited protections to prospective tenants with criminal records.

But New Jersey’s bill, which sets fines as high as $10,000 and establishes mechanisms for investigating landlords who rely only on criminal background checks to reject would-be renters, is considered the most sweeping of its kind.

The New Jersey Apartment Association, an industry group that represents more than 200,000 landlords and housing managers, had initial concerns about the structure of the bill. But the association’s executive director, David Brogan, said amendments “led to a much more balanced bill.”

“People should not be punished for the rest of their lives for something they did years ago,” he said.

Convictions for certain serious crimes, including murder and many sex offenses, can still be grounds for denying an application.

The effort to level the field for people with criminal records who are trying to find housing is particularly noteworthy in a state that operates the most racially unbalanced prison system in the nation. A 2016 study found that New Jersey imprisoned 12 Black inmates for each white inmate.

Offenders who are able to secure stable housing upon release are considered less likely to commit new crimes.

“On the back end, we can also reduce the number of Black and brown people who are returning to the criminal justice system,” said James Williams, director of racial justice policy at the Fair Share Housing Center, an advocacy group focused on protecting the housing rights of New Jersey’s poor that lobbied for the legislation for more than a year.

Gov. Philip D. Murphy, a Democrat, is expected to sign the bill into law later this month.

“Housing instability leads to higher recidivism, which undermines public safety,” a spokeswoman for Mr. Murphy, Alyana Alfaro, said.

The law, she said, will “break this cycle and combat housing discrimination.”

The bill does allow landlords to conduct criminal background checks after granting prospective tenants conditional approvals.

But they may no longer factor in most crimes committed long ago, and the so-called look-back window decreases with the severity of the crime.

Landlords, for example, may consider first-degree crimes for six years after release from prison when deciding on applicants. But fourth-degree crimes may only be used as a factor for either a year after a person’s release from custody or, if they are not sentenced to jail or prison time, the date of conviction.

In denying an applicant, landlords must explain why and offer applicants a chance to present mitigating circumstances.

The bill applies only to multifamily apartment buildings with five or more units.

The legislation was amended to reduce even steeper potential fines and to give landlords additional flexibility when considering applicants with convictions for serious crimes including murder, sex offenses, arson and methamphetamine production.

The apartment association considered these concessions key.

“We support second chances for ex-offenders,” Mr. Brogan said. “But we have an obligation to provide safe housing.”

He also said the government needs to do more to help people transition successfully after leaving prison. “Government shouldn’t be pointing the finger at private-sector landlords to address a problem that they themselves have failed to fix,” he said.

The housing measure is just one way that New Jersey is trying to make it easier for people with criminal convictions to find stability. In 2015, the state adopted a law that limited employers from asking about criminal convictions during the initial job screening process, as part of what has become known as the “ban the box” movement to limit obstacles to re-entering society after jail or prison time.

Sarah Fajardo, policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said the legislation that passed the Assembly and Senate Thursday with bipartisan support will help “shine a light into the decision-making” related to approving or denying applicants.

“There’s a lot of boxes that formerly incarcerated people have to check,” Ms. Fajardo said, “and we’re trying to ban all of them.”

Mr. Franklin, a playwright and community organizer for New Jersey Together, a coalition of religious groups, earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Rutgers University after being released from prison.

But he is still reliant on a church organization willing to sublet to former convicts.

“It goes on forever,” he said. “I caught my charge in 2004, and they still just disqualify me.”

The prospect of signing his own lease brings more than just a measure of dignity, he said. “It is a buffer between you and the streets and everything else,” he said.

J. Amos Caley, associate pastor of the Reformed Church of Highland Park, which arranged Mr. Franklin’s apartment, said the new law may also help to reduce segregation.

“Housing in New Jersey is one of the mechanisms through which segregation is codified,” he said. “If we can erase some of those codified discrimination practices, I think that’s going to be one huge step forward.”

Sen. Troy Singleton, a Democrat, who sponsored the legislation, cited the “staggering amount of data on the national level that shows securing housing is one of the key barriers to reducing recidivism.”

“This measure,” he said in a statement, “will allow those who have paid their debt to society to move forward with their lives in a productive manner.”

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