Alameda Co. becomes first in US to restrict landlords' use of background checks

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Thursday, December 22, 2022
Alameda Co. becomes first in US to pass 'Fair Chance' housing bill
This landmark move is seen as a big win to help formerly incarcerated people get back on their feet and proponents also believe it could help break the cycle of homelessness.

ALAMEDA COUNTY, Calif. (KGO) -- Alameda County is now the first county in the nation to give formerly incarcerated people who have paid their debts to society a 'Fair Chance' at housing through a newly-passed ordinance.

The county now follows Oakland and Berkeley in prohibiting landlords from performing criminal background checks on potential tenants.

RELATED: Oakland bans criminal background checks for housing applications

This is seen as a big win to help formerly incarcerated people get back on their feet.

Proponents also believe this landmark move could help break the cycle of homelessness.

"So now that this Fair Chance ordinance has been passed, now that fear factor has been removed," said Lee "Taqwaa" Bonner.

It's a fear that Bonner knows all too well. He was once incarcerated. When he was released from prison in 2016 after serving 30 years he had a tough time securing housing, even though he had paid his debt to society.

"I committed a crime. I went to prison, done my time. Why punish our families? Why put a mother in her position to tell her child that 'You can't come live with me' and that 'I have to force you to be homeless,'" he said.

Bonner's story is one of many. But that will soon change in Alameda County thanks to the Fair Chance Housing ordinance passed last Tuesday night by supervisors.

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The law, named after the late Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan, bans landlords from performing criminal background checks on prospective tenants.

"We know from studies and records, that about 73% of the unhoused residents in Oakland's homeless encampments actually have criminal records," said Xavier Johnson of the Just Cities Institute. "So we can see that it's been a barrier for them to access housing. We also know that a person who has a criminal record is about 10 times more likely to face homelessness on a whole."

The new ordinance follows similar laws passed in Oakland and Berkeley in 2020 and now includes unincorporated areas of Alameda County.

While a coalition of groups in the Bay Area worked to pass the measure at least one attorney that specializes in landlord-tenant disputes and owns a property management company isn't sold.

"I'm not in favor of the law," said Daniel Bornstein of Bornstein Law, a bay area law firm specializing in real estate. "I absolutely respect it, and I understand the public policy behind it. However, what I'm most concerned about is ensuring a safe community of apartment or housing providers and to the extent that you're not able to look at someone's background. You risk allowing someone to live in a place that may not be an ideal fit for the community."

It should be noted that landlords will still be able to check prospective tenants against the sex offender registry.

MORE: Homelessness count rises in California despite staying steady nationwide, report finds

Bornstein said instead of an all-out prohibition on checking criminal records of potential applications, he would have been in favor of those checks being limited.

For example, only allowing landlords to inquire if a prospective tenant was impacted by the justice system in the last five years.

California's system of mass incarceration disproportionately impacts people of color and Black people are also more likely to be unhoused in the Bay Area despite smaller populations.

Bonner hopes this ordinance changes that for good.

"We have to take this ordinance and get this ordinance passed throughout California, in every city in California, and throughout the rest of the world," he said.

The ordinance will take effect in April 2023 when Alameda County's eviction moratorium, put in place early in the pandemic, is set to expire.

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