Oakland bans tenant criminal background checks

Bay Area

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — The Oakland City Council on Tuesday moved to approve an ordinance that would prohibit landlords from asking about a potential tenant’s criminal history or rejecting them out of hand for having a record.

Council members voted unanimously to pass the Fair Chance Access to Housing Ordinance, which supporters say will help ensure ex-cons can find secure housing instead of ending up on the streets.

The council must still take a final vote on Feb. 4 before the measure takes effect, the East Bay Times reported.

The Berkeley City Council is expected to vote on a similar measure in February and supporters plan to start work shortly on similar measures in Emeryville and Alameda County.

Oakland’s ordinance is the strictest of its kind in the state, covering both public and private housing, reports say.

A measure in neighboring San Francisco only covers affordable housing while Richmond’s covers publicly-subsidized affordable housing and nonprofit housing.

“This ordinance is about making sure returning community members have equal opportunities they deserve to successfully reintegrate into our community, and this begins with a roof over your head,” said Oakland council member Nikki Fortunato Bas, who co-sponsored the measure with council member Dan Kalb and Vice Mayor Larry Reid.

The measure prohibits landlords from rejecting a potential tenant because of his or her prior conviction or from requiring disclosure of a criminal history in background checks. Landlords will have six months to adapt to the law. After that, they could face fines of up to $1,000 for each violation.

Background checks are a standard part of applying for an apartment, and applicants with a criminal record often are denied. That can make it next to impossible for those who have been incarcerated to find housing, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area’s tight housing market.

Lee “Taqwaa” Bonner of the group Legal Services for Prisoners with Children said the ordinance could change his life. He spent three decades behind bars for second-degree murder and was released from prison three years ago but at times had to live in his car for lack of a place to stay.

“I was born and raised in Oakland,” Bonner said at a news conference before the vote. “I am employed in Oakland. I own and drive a vehicle in Oakland. However, I cannot live in Oakland based solely on my criminal record, which happened 30 years ago.”

The measure raised concerns from some property owners who worried that it might put tenants at risk.

“As rental housing providers, we have a responsibility to provide a safe environment to residents and a huge part of that is knowing the background of each applicant,” Wayne Rowland, president of the East Bay Rental Housing Association, said in an email to the East Bay Times.

However, landlords still will be able to ask for references, income and employment information, “all the things” that can indicate whether an applicant will be a good tenant, said Margaretta Lin, executive director of the Just Cities social justice group.

The Oakland ordinance does have some exemptions for single-family homes, duplexes, triplexes and in-law units if the owner is living on the property. Likewise, tenants seeking to add or replace a roommate would be exempt.

Also exempt are owners of government-subsidized affordable housing, including federally-subsidized Section 8 units, who are required to exclude certain renters based on their criminal records. Currently, the federal government requires landlords to reject potential tenants who have been convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine or are on the state’s lifetime sex offender registry.

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