Council Approves Protections for Renters With Criminal Records

“Once you pay your debt to society … you deserve a second chance.”

Fifteen months in prison. Three years of probation. A $30,000 fine. Sue Mason paid her debt to society long ago — 14 years, to be exact — yet, it feels like she’s still doing her time.

“I get reconvicted over and over,” Mason said during public comment Monday at City Hall. “Even after I’ve had housing, even after I’ve been employed for years and then to have somebody say, ‘no, you don’t deserve housing, it hasn’t been long enough.’ What we’re talking about is discrimination. Period.”

For Mason, and the other one-in-three people in Seattle with a criminal record, it can be extremely difficult to find housing.

The Seattle City Council hopes that will be changing soon with the unanimous passage of the Fair Chance Housing Ordinance Monday.

The legislation will reduce barriers to housing for people with a criminal record by barring landlords from turning away potential tenants simply because they have past arrests or a criminal conviction.

The bill has a long history, beginning in 2013 when councilmembers Mike O’Brien and Nick Licata addressed the issue by removing barriers at publicly funded housing. It then reappeared as a recommendation within Mayor Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA). Finally, after a year of collaboration and discussions, it has passed.

As councilmember M. Lorena Gonzalez put it, this is a second chance bill.

“Once you pay your debt to society by virtue of spending time in prison or jail or a conviction,” Gonzalez said, “at that point you deserve a second chance.”

Many councilmembers echoed this sentiment.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who spearheaded the legislation, spoke to the importance of the people who came forward to share their lived experiences.

“The reality is that no matter how many facts and figures exist, what actually creates structural change is our collective awareness of these lived experiences. They are worth more than all the studies combined,” she said.

Several people, including Mason, helped bring that awareness on Monday.

There was Zackary Tutwiler, a former drug dealer who couldn’t hold a normal job after suffering a traumatic brain injury. After serving a possession sentence, Tutwiler stopped dealing. But, he quickly found himself on the streets, homeless.

Thanks to employment with Real Change he was able to secure a job and find permanent housing. Others, he knows, aren’t so lucky.

“If it wasn’t for my current housing situation I would be homeless again because of my criminal past,” Tutwiler said. “I deserve housing. We all deserve housing.”

Rusty Thomas, similarly, is formerly incarcerated.

Despite going back to school, getting a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and co-founding the Freedom Project, an organization that provides programming for current inmates and recently incarcerated people, Thomas still gets turned down for housing.

Within his community, he still is told he doesn’t fit in and that he doesn’t belong. And he recognizes that, as a white man, he has it relatively easy.

“Look, I say all this because I have the agency of a white male up here,” Thomas said. “So if I’m suffering I can’t even imagine people of color trying to do the same thing I’m doing.”

Before this legislation, councilmember Herbold said, landlords had the ability to reject potential tenants because they had simply been arrested in the last seven years. This is a relatively new development, with the advancement of background checking systems, Herbold said. An arrest, not even a conviction, can stand in the way of people having a home.

“For a criminal justice system that disproportionately arrests people of color,” Herbold said, “punishing someone who hasn’t been found guilty is a true injustice. For those who have been convicted, the way I see it, you’ve paid your debt to society if you’ve served your time.”

Sue Mason dabbed happy tears under glasses following the bill’s passage.

“It’s been 14 years dealing with this,” she said. “It’s like having a scarlet letter I can take off, it’s like I can just be me.”

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