Fair Chance Housing bill under discussion

This morning, the Council continued its discussion of a proposed “Fair Chance Housing” bill, which prohibits discrimination by landlords in some circumstances against people with a criminal record who apply for housing.

From the Racial Equity Toolkit analysis on the bill:

It is estimated that across race, approximately 30% (173,714) of Seattle residents over the age of 18 have an arrest or conviction record and that 7%, or 43,428 people, have a felony record.

While the barriers faced by a criminal record exist across race, major disparities exist in who is incarcerated in Washington state and who has access to housing. African Americans are 3.4% of the overall state population, but account for nearly 18.4% of the state’s prison population; Latinos are 11.2% of Washington’s population, but account for 13.2% of the state’s prison population; and Native Americans are 1.3% of the state population, but account for 4.7% of the state’s prison population.

Here in King County, African Americans are 6.8% of the overall population, but account for 36.3% of the King County jail population. Native Americans are 1.1%, but account for 2.4% of the King County jail population. While the Latino population in King County is 9.5%, Latinos are aggregated with the white population data in the King County Jail, so rate of incarceration for Latino adults in King County is unknown.

Criminal history does not only impact adults, but it also impacts children with criminal history and their families’ search for housing. African American youth account for 6.8% of the overall King County population, but account for 47.3% of those in juvenile detention;  Native American youth account for 0.8% of the overall King County population,but account for 3.4% of those in juvenile detention; and Latino youth account for 9.5% of the overall King County population, but account for 20.6% of those in juvenile detention.


The bill does several things:

  • It limits the use of criminal history by landlords. They may not use language in advertisements that excludes people with arrest or conviction records. They may not ask about or deny housing based on arrests not leading to convictions; pending criminal charges; convictions that have been removed from the record or sealed; juvenile records; and convictions older than two years from the date of the tenant’s application. For convictions less than two years old, they may only deny housing based on a legitimate business reason.
  • Landlords must include on a rental application whether they screen for conviction records and which criteria they use. They must also provide applicants with the contact information for any consumer reporting agency they use and notify applicants of their right to get a free copy and dispute a report’s accuracy.
  • It prohibits retaliation for exercising any of the rights in the bill.

There are several exclusions carved out as well:

  • It doesn’t apply when federal law requires otherwise, such as when federally funded housing is required to ban persons convicted of meth production in federally assisted housing, and persons on a lifetime sex offender registry.
  • It doesn’t apply to shared occupancy units.
  • It doesn’t apply to buildings with 4 or fewer units where the owner lives in one of them.
  • It doesn’t apply to ADUs and DADUs when the owner lives on the site.

The bill also creates a Fair Housing Home Program to educate and certify landlords on reducing bias in housing.

The Office of Civil Rights wrote a memo explaining why this ordinance is necessary, laying out the added difficulties that those with criminal records have in finding housing and how stable housing reduces recidivism.

The bill isn’t without its detractors.  Some landlords and their professional associations oppose it, complaining of even more bureaucracy as well as duplication with federal and state restrictions in how criminal records may be used.  Even the OCR’s memo points out that in jurisdictions where “ban the box” policies have been enacted, landlords tend to use race as a proxy for criminal record (i.e. they assume black people have a criminal records), leading to even higher rates of bias against people of color, regardless of whether they actually have a criminal record.

Several amendments were discussed today, but not voted on:

  • adding a recital to note that landlords are not obligated under state or local law to conduct criminal background checks.
  • attaching a clerk file containing the documents, research, and studies showing the relationship between stable housing and recidivism, the disproportionate effects of housing bias (and on prison) on communities of color,  and other relevant facts.
  • requiring the City Auditor to evaluate the program by the end of 2019.
  • prohibiting the use of a sex offense conviction if the adult was convicted as a juvenile.
  • Removing the 2-year lookback period. If adopted, this amendment would prohibit looking at criminal convictions no matter how long ago they happened — even within the past 2 years. The only exception would be the presence of an adult on a sex offender registry, and the exceptions required by federal law.
  • Removing the exception for buildings with 4 or more units where the owner lives on the premises.

The council’s staff is still drafting the text of the proposed amendments. At the committee’s next meeting on August 8th, they expect to have those amendments ready for votes, and to vote on whether to send the underlying bill out of committee.