Housing in Seattle is out of reach for many with prior criminal convictions.
Housing in Seattle is out of reach for many with prior criminal convictions. William Andrew/Getty

Landlords should not be able to refuse potential renters only because they have a criminal record, Seattle city leaders say, and in coming months they'll pursue legislation to stop the practice.

Labeling the proposal "Fair Chance Housing," Mayor Ed Murray announced today he would send legislation to the city council restricting how landlords can consider prospective tenants' criminal histories.

The law would operate similarly to the city's existing "Ban the Box" employment law, which limits how employers can consider the criminal histories of job applicants and requires that they give applicants the chance to explain their record.

Landlords would be prohibited from posting housing ads that bar people with convictions from applying for housing. They would also be prohibited from asking prospective tenants about convictions more than two years old, arrests that did not result in convictions, pending charges, juvenile records, or convictions that have been expunged. If they reject tenants with criminal records, landlords would have the burden of proving that rejection was not discriminatory. The law will not bar landlords from considering people's presence on the sex offender registry. It will not apply to buildings with four or fewer units where the owner lives on site or to backyard cottages.

In a statement, Columbia Legal Services and other advocates who have worked on this issue praised the proposal but said it should go even further. "Any use of criminal records in tenant screening ignores the evidence showing that past convictions are not an indication of risky tenancy," the group said. "Even two years gives legitimacy to a baseless and racially influenced stigma."

Augustine Cita applied for housing with seven or eight landlords before being accepted. The 47-year-old was convicted of a robbery charge in 2006 and began looking for housing in 2013 after he was released.

"You feel rejected," Cita said in an interview with The Stranger. "You've made a poor choice. You understand that, so you've served your time. You want to get on to a productive life. But if you can't find a place to live, where do you go? You kind of feel rejected by the whole city."

Cita, who now works with the Urban League, remembers some landlords who told him not to even bother applying if he had even a misdemeanor in the last 10 years.

"It's much harder to find a place to live than a job when you have criminal history," he said.

Back in 2015, Murray's Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) committee included legislation like this in its recommendations to address the city's housing crisis. At the core of HALA's recommendation were not just changes to zoning, but calls for increasing tenants rights and reducing barriers for people who currently having trouble finding housing in the city.

The HALA committee wrote that "one in every three to four" adults in the United Stats has a criminal record that can hurt their ability to get housing.

"Persons with a criminal record, who are disproportionately lower income and people of color, need fair access to suitable housing options," the group wrote. "Studies show that people with stable housing are more likely to successfully reintegrate into society and less likely to reoffend."

The Washington State Attorney General's Office has also cracked down on landlords who ban felons, arguing those policies have a disparate impact on African Americans.

Columbia Legal Services, the city's Office for Civil Rights, and other groups have been holding meetings with advocates and landlord representatives over the past year. Brenda Anibarro, policy manager at OCR, said the exemption of small buildings and backyard cottages was a compromise with landlord interests.

Beginning in mid-July, Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold's civil rights committee will begin considering the legislation. In a press conference today, Herbold made the link between the policy and the city's homelessness crisis. In Washington, about 85 people a month exit incarceration directly into homelessness, she said. This policy "is about addressing a homelessness crisis we have partially created ourselves because we are not giving everyone a fair chance," Herbold said.

The Rental Housing Association of Washington, a landlord group that regularly lobbies on city and state issues, did not return a request for comment today. That group's spokesperson Sean Martin recently spoke to the Seattle Times' Overcast podcast about this question, which he called a "public safety issue." Martin argues tenants who pass a background check expect that their neighbors have passed the same background check. "We don't feel that this is something that it should be landlords' obligation to solve a societal problem," Martin said.

To landlords citing potential safety issues with today's legislation, Cita argued people trying to restart their lives after time in prison are likely to be more motivated to be even good tenants than most renters.

"They have too much to lose," he said.