In 2015, Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) task force issued 65 recommendations for how city leaders should tackle our compounding crisis of rising housing prices. One of the thornier ones: get housing for people with criminal records.
Right now a special committee is brainstorming ways to accomplish this. Their recommendations are due sometime this summer. But getting landlords to rent to people who served time in prison isn’t easy, and can result in ugly, unintended side effects.
The problem: A criminal record can dog people who have followed the law for years or decades, keeping them securely sunk among the ranks of “the new Jim Crow,” as Dr. Michele Alexander famously described America’s ex-con underclass. This disproportionately non-white population is systematically excluded from both housing and jobs, since a criminal history is a red flag for most employers and landlords.
The current push for fair housing for former prisoners began in 2010, when a group of transitional housing residents at Sojourner Place called the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) and asked for local legislation mirroring laws in Michigan and New York that prohibit discriminating against people with criminal histories on applications for jobs and housing, respectively. That ask led city leaders to pass Ban the Box legislation for job applications in 2013, and may lead them to do the same for housing applications this summer.
In 2016, a Homeless Needs Assessment report commissioned by the city through a consultant found that nearly a third of Seattle’s homeless had some kind of involvement with the criminal justices system before they became homeless. According to Erika Pablo of the OCR, about 30 percent of Seattle adults have an arrest or conviction record and 7 percent have a felony record. One in five people who leave prison become homeless, said Pablo.
To research the effects of a Ban the Box policy for housing, Pablo and others in OCR visited the Black Prisoners Caucus at Clallum Bay Corrections Center. “About 80 percent of the men we spoke with at Clallam Bay plan to return to Seattle once their sentence is complete,” Pablo told the City Council’s Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic Development and Arts (CRUEDA) committee last week.
These men can take the glass wall of housing discrimination for granted; it’s a fact of life, something to plan around. So is the risk of creating guilt-by-association for your family and friends in the eyes of their landlord. “One man knew that he would be homeless because he didn’t want to jeopordize his mother’s stable housing,” Pabol said. And not only does prison lead to homelessness; homelessness leads right back to prison. “We know housing instability increases recidivism,” said Pablo, based in part on research conducted here in Seattle at DESC. “Without housing, a person was seven times more likely to re-enter the criminal justice system.”
The solution: To crack the nut of housing former prisoners, the mayor and City Council convened a Fair Chance Housing Legislation Stakeholder Committee a year and a half ago to brainstorm legislation and policies. Committee facilitator and OCR employee Brenda Anabarro says that the committee has been drafting legislation since December, and they have a working draft they “hope to transmit [to City Council] very soon—in the coming weeks.”
The stakeholder committee was summoned in part by HALA, which exhorts city leaders to “reduce barriers to housing for people with criminal records” via “local legislation, education, technical assistance, and fair housing enforcement.” Specifically, HALA recommends using an anti-discrimination legal framework to prohibit broad-brush rejections of renter applicants with criminal records and requiring a landlord to provide a “business justification” for screening criteria.
The city has already made some headway in some of the arenas HALA mentions. In 2012 at the behest of Councilmembers Mike O’Brien and Nike Licata, the Office of Housing (OH) developed Tenant Screening Agency Guidelines that discourages a shotgun-exclusion approach to screening tenants, according to a letter sent from Herbold and other councilmembers to the mayor last year. OH’s Rental Housing Program, which funds affordable rental housing, has already made the expansion of housing for people with criminal histories an explicit priority. It’s also gone after other forms of housing discrimination. A 2015 investigation by the Office of Civil Rights found a pattern of discrimination against housing applicants based on race, national origin, sexual orientation and gender identity, and worked with landlords to correct it.
But for when a gentle needs to become a forceful shove, housing advocates say, city law needs to include an explicit framework for tolerated landlord behavior, including consequences of violations. That’s where the Fair Chance Housing Legislation Stakeholder Committee comes in. Like HALA, it takes a broad-stakeholders approach, with representation from renter advocacy groups including the Tenants Union, service providers such as Pioneer Human Services, the private landlord groups the Washington Multifamily Housing Association and the Rental Housing Association of Washington, and others. O’Brien and Harrell also have staffers attending the committee.
The committee’s task is a tricky one. While banning discrimination against former prisoners is conceptually simple, there are a number of pitfalls they’ll need to avoid. One is unintended consequences: in one study in New York City and Newark, New Jersey, Ban the Box legislation correlated to a huge increase in racial discrimination. “Without the ability to ask the question” of whether an applicant has a criminal history, said Lisa Herbold, “employers were making assumptions” based on race. Anabarro concurred: “Absent that ability, the employer was associating criminality with blackness.”
Needless to say, the news that Ban the Box had backfired in one case made the stakeholder committee reconsider that approach. That reconsideration is ongoing, though Anabarro believes that the end is in sight. “We’re struggling to come up with something, and we’re close to moving forward,” she said, hopefully within a span of weeks.
Until then, Seattleites with criminal histories will have to keep hustling in a housing market that’s even tougher than the regular one. Seattleites like this man, for instance:
An earlier version of this article inaccurately credited the Sister of Providence for contacting OCR in 2010.