Seattle Mayor Ed Murray recently sent legislation to the City Council that aims to increase racial equity in housing to ensure everyone has access to opportunity. Among other steps, Fair Chance Housing would prevent landlords from screening applicants based on criminal convictions more than two years old, and prohibit the use of advertising language that categorically excludes people with arrests or conviction records. The announcement is a recognition of years of work by the community supporting a policy that will increase racial equity in access to housing, help keep families together, and build stronger, more inclusive communities.
“The growth in the number of Americans with criminal records has created a crisis of housing inaccessibility that is disproportionately felt by people of color,” said Murray. “Not only has our criminal justice system punished Black Americans disproportionately, they continue to be punished by barriers to housing that cut off access to opportunity. Ensuring people have fair access to housing is about equity and about ensuring everyone has the ability contribute in our society, including getting a good job and raising a family.”
According to officials, an estimated 1 in 3 Americans has a criminal record and nearly half of all children in the United States have at least one parent with a criminal record. It is estimated that 30 percent of Seattle residents over 18, or more than 173,000 people, have an arrest or conviction, with 7 percent having a felony record. Each of these people face significant barriers to housing because of current policy, denying them access to a basic need that would help them be successful. One study found that 43 percent of Seattle landlords are inclined to reject a tenant with a criminal history. All Home, which coordinates homelessness services for King County, found that 1 in 5 people who leave prison become homeless shortly after.
According to Murray, the Fair Chance Housing ordinance would prevent landlords from screening applicants based on criminal convictions older than two years; arrests that did not lead to a conviction; convictions that have been expunged, vacated or sealed; juvenile records; or status of a juvenile tenant on the sex offender registry. Landlords will not be able to use language in advertisements that categorically excludes people with arrests or conviction records and must provide a business justification for rejecting an applicant based on their criminal history. Fair Chance Housing is one of the dozens of recommendations in Mayor Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) meant to address public safety and racial equity in housing by lowering barriers for those re-entering society, who are disproportionately people of color.
“You can’t say everyone has a fair chance to succeed when we have a criminal justice system that disproportionally arrests and convicts people of color,” said Councilmember Lisa Herbold. “Fair Chance Housing is about giving people fair opportunities. This legislation is about addressing a homelessness crisis that we have created ourselves because we are not giving everyone a fair chance.”
Seattle has previously taken steps to lower barriers to housing, a key recommendation in HALA after years of community advocacy, and an essential component of the City’s plan to address homelessness, Pathways Home. These include Source of Income Discrimination legislation that protects people using alternative sources of income to pay rent and the coordination with funders of homeless services to reduce and standardize screening criteria for programs. People impacted by previous policies have advocated for the City to address these barriers for years, including hundreds of who spoke at community forums and the Fair Chance Housing Stakeholder Committee convened last year. Today’s announcement is the culmination of that work, as the City works to lower barriers to housing and ensure Seattle remains affordable and accessible.
“If part of the American Dream is to own a home, what message are we sending to people who cannot even rent, even after they have paid their debt to society?” said Augustine Cita, Workforce Development Director, Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle. “We need to fix that.”