Seattle Could be First in the Nation to Stop Rental Criminal History Discrimination

by Kelsey Hamlin

Update [8/14/2017, 5:40 p.m.]: Since this article was first published, the Seattle City Council officially passed the Fair Chance Housing Legislation on Monday afternoon, keeping the amendments. 

As it stands, one slice of the criminalization and homelessness cycle could shatter thanks to a Seattle City Council vote set for next week. Seattle would make history, becoming the first city in the nation prohibiting landlords from denying rentals to applicants based on criminal background.

Rachael Myers, director of a housing advocacy group called Washington Low Income Housing Alliance (WLIHA), said this is but a cog in the machine of Seattle’s housing crisis.

“I’m really pleased the [Seattle City] Council passed the bill out [Tuesday] with amendments that make it even stronger,” Myers said. “There’s a lot of things that we need to do in addition to this to make housing affordable and to eliminate other barriers.”

Spearheaded by councilmember Lisa Herbold, the bill, called Fair Chance Housing, passed out of committee and now awaits the full Council vote on Aug. 14. Originally, the bill stated landlords and managers couldn’t ban anyone with a criminal record from housing unless they had been charged within the last two years. However, the timeframe was removed after a unanimous amendment.

Now, the bill prohibits landlords from denying applicants based on any criminal history, period. This includes arrests and convictions, even felonies. It does not include sex offenders, which is a state-mandated right of denial. Should Fair Chance Housing pass the full council, it will be implemented 150 days after Mayor Ed Murray signs it. There is no grandfather clause, meaning the ability to pursue a civil lawsuit will only be possible if the discrimination occurred after the bill is implemented.

One in three Americans have a criminal record, according to The Sentencing Project. Furthermore, the bill pivoted around the fact that research shows there is no connection between a criminal record corresponding with bad tenancy. One study found 51 percent of housing service participants had a criminal record but 72 percent nonetheless achieved a successful rental tenure.

There is, however, research that proves homelessness is a risk factor of recidivism. If those with a criminal history cannot obtain housing due to their background and thus become homeless, society predisposes criminals to recidivate.

“It’s undoubtedly the right thing to do,” Myers said of the bill. “Everybody is better off when people have the support they need when they exit the criminal justice system.”

In fact, the bill addresses deeper problems.

Consider this hypothetical: Say a person receives a felony charge, they lose or are financially forced to forfeit their residence, and are then released from prison after a handful of years. Time and time again, this person is denied housing — even with state assistance to pay for it — and becomes homeless. Even if this person stays away from drugs, the very act of occupying space as a homeless individual is often made criminal.

Sarah Rankin, a Seattle University professor in law, has argued against the criminalization of homelessness for years on both an individual and societal level. She argues it costs more to deal with the ramifications of punishing the homeless than it would to otherwise aid them.

So how rampant is this problem? Over a quarter of cities across the U.S. prohibit sleeping in public places, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Just last year, Seattle itself prohibited camping, sitting and lying in certain public places, and living or sleeping in vehicles.

“If people are receiving citations for survival activities (sleeping outside, urinating in public), that could lead to them having a criminal record if they don’t get their notification to show up in court,” Myers said. “All of these things compound and it worsens people’s ability to get housing. Those kind of laws don’t do anything to reduce homelessness, get people into homes. They’re just not effective.”

The homeless population is also disproportionately composed of people of color. All Home, a Seattle homelessness program that gathers information and allocates resources, noted 60 percent of people who participated in homeless services in 2016 were people of color, though they make up less than 35 percent of King County residents.  

Moreover, Washington state imprisons people of color at disproportionate rates. Black people are imprisoned at a rate nearly six times that of white people, despite making up 4.7 percent of the state’s population last year.

Adrian Laster, however, is more than a statistic.

Laster is a 45-year-old man who has a criminal history. After his 2016 incarceration, he was homeless — and still is. At first, he lived with his sister. He then roamed the streets, sleeping overnight in his car and laundromats. He then found Othello Village, a homeless plot utilizing micro housing in the South End. He has been there for over a year.

“I wish I could erase the felonies but I can’t,” Laster said, his small jeweled nose piercing shining in the hot sun. “I think everybody deserves a chance. I’m trying to live the rest of my life real happy, with my grandkids, go fishin’.”

Laster sat on the Section 8 voucher waitlist for two years — most people have to wait five. He called that waiting period “the worst two months of [his] life.” The voucher, once granted, would’ve covered whatever affordable housing would accept Laster within a three month period.

IMG_2428
Talking with a fellow resident, Adrian Laster sits in one of Othello Village’s tents. [Photo: Kelsey Hamlin]
“I was happy,” Laster said. “I was thinking, I could do this.”

But once Laster began applying for housing, he realized it’s practically a game of luck. Seattle’s housing and rental market is incredibly competitive. On top of that, Laster’s felony makes getting a place nearly impossible. While Seattle doesn’t allow source of income discrimination, Laster felt the combination of relying on his section 8 voucher, his dark complexion, and his criminal history made landlords turn him away. His criminal history is largely comprised of nonviolent drug charges, minus a handful from over 10 years ago. The man himself admits to struggling with mental health and said it’s largely why he cannot have a roommate.

Laster recalled his first housing disappointment: His case manager instructed him to go down the street because there was a rental opportunity that opened right that minute. When Laster arrived 20 minutes later, it was gone. He would be disappointed many times after.

“I was depressed for a minute,” he said, explaining that it lead him to give up hope. “[Case managers] got frustrated because I felt let down after that first denial and I kind of slacked off for about a month. I got a voucher; I got denied. That’s crazy. Why is that happening?”

His story is all too familiar to many in the housing services sector.

“We hear pretty routinely that [criminal history] is a barrier, particularly in a tight rental market like we’re in in Seattle,” WLIHA’s Myers said. “Anything that is a mark on somebody’s record really can just take them out of the running for a very low supply of affordable rentals that are available.”

The director attributed this to stigmas. People associate one or multiple brushes with the criminal justice system with the likelihood of reoffending or of bad tenancy.

“Someone might not even be intentionally discriminating,” Myers said. “People may think they’re very open minded and desire being fair to someone who they think deserves it, and that is based on what they think is fair criteria. But you can’t eliminate those implicit biases, so legislating is really the solution.”

Even though Laster had an unproductive blip, he went to see his case manager multiple times a week. Eventually, his section 8 voucher expired and he was still homeless. He continues feeling betrayed, as if he was given a false hope.

“That hurt so bad,” Laster said, shaking his head. “How could they hand me something and snatch it away? They’re supposed to help people. It doesn’t make sense to get a voucher and not get a place. They could’ve put me somewhere; that’s their job to help people with housing.”

Seattle’s housing and homelessness problem are inseparably related. The system’s flaws, however, are much larger than any single person or organization. Multiple factors are at play. Seattle and many other large cities nationwide have been tackling a homeless and housing crisis with different methods for years. But, at the very least, if Seattle City Council passes this ordinance, it could make at one less barrier for people like Laster.

“I think it’s a piece of the overall solution to the housing crisis,” Myers said. “We would love to see state legislation modeled on this that would eliminate criminal records as a barrier all over Washington. In the state Legislature, [WLIHA is] also working to eliminate source of income discrimination. Seattle already has that protection.”

Myers calls source of income discrimination a proxy. She feels landlords use it for what would otherwise be illegal discrimination, like race or family status — one such instance being single parents with children.

“If we want people to reintegrate into society, get a job and get a footing back in their community,” Myers said, “we’ve got to find a way to get them into housing.”

Back in Othello Village, Laster has many aspirations and, though his life has been difficult, wants to help other people. He dreams of going back to school and becoming a mental health or youth counselor “so they don’t go down the same road.”

“I would like to have stability, have my own place because there’s things I want to do,” he said. “That’s going to be my give-back, I hope. But I can’t go to school without a place to live.”

Currently, Laster waits in line for another voucher, this time with King County. He feels the more he talks about his struggles, the better things will be. The Othello resident doesn’t want doubt to fester.

“I’m going to talk it into existence,” Laster said. He repeated the words “I’m going to get a place.”

Myers noted that if the Fair Chance Housing bill passes, there will be a period of implementation where landlords will receive training on their rights and responsibilities. The change will be gauged for effectiveness, and adjustments will be made as needed.

Meanwhile, Laster feels it’s been a long time coming.

“There’s a lot of felons who are ready,” he said. “All they need is an opportunity, a chance for that. I know I’m ready. I’m going to help make a difference if I can.”

Kelsey Hamlin is a freelance reporter with various Seattle publications. Nearly finished with her University of Washington undergraduate career, she’ll graduate with interdisciplinary Honors, a B.A. in journalism and a minor in Law, Societies & Justice. Hamlin served as President and VP for the UW’s Society of Professional Journalists over the past two years. She is currently looking for more work! Please find her on Twitter @ItsKelseyHamlin or see more of her articles on her website.

 

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