The Oakland, California, City Council unanimously approved a new ordinance Tuesday that will prevent landlords from looking into the criminal history of applicants for rental housing. A subsequent vote next month will allow the measure to take effect. The new rental protections for ex-convicts will be the strictest in California to date; previously, San Francisco and Richmond had adopted similar ordinances that applied such rules only to designated affordable or public housing. The city of Berkeley is planning to take up its own ban next month.
These new restrictions on landlords in the Bay Area illustrate a trend that is motivated by concerns about discrimination leading ex-convicts to homelessness and hobbling them in rehabilitation and reintegration into their communities. “[T]he U.S. Department of Justice has estimated one in every three adults in the United States has either an arrest or conviction record,” notes the preamble to the Oakland ordinance. “[T]he unmet housing needs of formerly incarcerated people in Oakland are an acute challenge to the dignity, public health and safety, and equal opportunity for this population and the broader community,” it continues. “[R]esearch has found that access to housing reduces recidivism.”
Seattle issued a similar prohibition on background checks in 2017 and faced legal challenges from landlords. Contending that such restrictions violate their due process rights, the Seattle landlords sustained an appeal regarding how strictly the courts should review justifications for the ban. In November of last year, the Washington Supreme Court ruled against the landlords’ request for heightened scrutiny, remanding to the lower courts to only review the housing ordinance with the more permissive “rational basis” standard. The ruling kept the new ordinance in effect, though the litigation is ongoing. Oakland’s new rules are likely to face similar legal challenges.
Landlords in Oakland will still be able to review other factors in prospective tenants’ applications, such as rental references, employment status, and income. Landlords who violate the background check ban may be fined “up to $1,000 for each violation.” Applicants may complain to the city about violations, and the ordinance provides for civil suits by aggrieved applicants as well as non-profit organizations focused on the rights of tenants and incarcerated persons.