Pending legislation would curtail criminal background checks for renters

Lawmakers and advocates say routine questions on rental applications can harm people for decades
State Sen. Troy Singleton is the prime sponsor of the bill in the upper house.

New Jersey lawmakers and social-justice advocates launched a push Tuesday for legislation to help the formerly incarcerated rent an apartment by curtailing the ability of landlords to deny housing to some people based on their criminal histories.

The Fair Chance Housing Act, embodied in S-250 and A-1919, is an effort to “ban the box” that asks whether a person has been convicted of a crime on housing-rental applications. The bills would still allow a landlord to ultimately deny renting to someone with a criminal record based on certain criteria and if the landlord has a “substantial, legitimate and nondiscriminatory interest” in doing so. But failure to follow the law would subject a landlord to penalties.

The New Jersey Apartment Association, which represents landlords, supports the concept so long as it still provides a “balanced approach” that allows owners to ensure the safety of tenants, said Dave Brogan, executive director. Brogan criticized the Senate version of the bill as going too far in seeking to make ex-offenders a protected class under anti-discrimination law and subjecting landlords to “draconian penalties” for violations.

But James Williams of the Fair Share Housing Center called the legislation “important and potentially historic,” saying it would make New Jersey the first state to “decouple housing from the criminal justice system” by removing a criminal background check from rental applications. Currently Newark and several other cities across the country have similar ordinances in place.

“The three years following the release from prison is the window in which ex-prisoners are most likely to re-offend,” said Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), prime sponsor of the Senate version. “There’s a staggering amount of data on the national level that shows securing employment and housing are key obstacles to reducing recidivism. We have sought to address both of these barriers through public policy that we’ve worked passionately on.”

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Both bills have cleared committees and are awaiting passage by their respective houses. It’s unclear when or whether that will happen in either the Assembly or Senate. Ultimately, if either proposal or a compromise is to be sent to the governor’s desk, it will have to be approved in both chambers.

Long-lasting implications

Proponents said the legislation is needed to extend the protection against discrimination based on race, religion, national origin or sex provided by the 1968 Fair Housing Act to those with criminal convictions.

Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Passaic), head of the Legislative Black Caucus, said banning the box on an application allows formerly incarcerated individuals “at least the opportunity to have the conversation about securing housing for themselves and for their families.”

Linda Jones, a Monmouth County woman who was homeless for many years, urged passage, saying she was denied housing 17 years after an arrest for drug use.

“I was arrested for possession. I was a drug user, I didn’t sell drugs,” she said. “After being denied, I felt like my past is being thrown up in my face. I had been clean for 14 years.”

Joe Ortiz, an attorney working in Essex County, said he has worked with many clients denied housing due to past offenses.

“They come to me in a panic, saying, ‘I can’t find stable housing because of my criminal record … I have to commit another crime because I know I will have housing,’” he said. “I recently had a client 65 years old trying to enter senior housing and was denied for something that he committed when he was 18 years old.”

The specifics

While asking about a prospective tenant’s criminal history would be prohibited on an initial application, once a provisional offer of housing was made, a landlord could conduct a criminal background check and then refuse to rent to the individual depending on the severity of the crime and how long ago it had been committed. The measures differ in how they deal with those specifics, as well as the types of rental units that would be covered by the law.

Both versions of the bill were seven pages long when pre-filed in January 2020, but each was amended separately, creating significant differences between the two.

The Senate version now would more broadly prevent housing discrimination based on immigration status or gender identity, as well as criminal background and make violations subject to the state’s Law Against Discrimination. Now 41 pages, the bill would subject landlords to a penalty of $25,000 for a first violation. It would cover virtually all rentals.

The Assembly version would not apply to owner-occupied buildings with three units or less; the penalty for a first violation would be $100.

Brogan said the association is “not opposed to what they are trying to accomplish here,” but finds the Senate version of the bill, in particular, to be problematic for a number of reasons. These include making ex-offenders a “protected class” under the anti-discrimination law, the stiff financial penalties for violations and the bill’s application to owner-occupied buildings.

“We are not opposed to second chances and look-back periods,” Brogan said. “We are obligated to provide safe communities.”

Dan Antonellis of the nonprofit Regional Nine Housing Corp. based in New Brunswick that owns and manages 1,100 units in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, said he supports the legislation.

“I would anecdotally tell you that we have less issues with people who had backgrounds and have paid their debt to society,” he said.

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