The Fair Chance for Housing Act would bar landlords and brokers from conducting criminal background checks on prospective tenants, a barrier to housing for the formerly incarcerated and their families.

Marc Fader for City Limits

Devone Nash has spent thousands of dollars on apartment applications, only to be denied by brokers and landlords after a routine background check.

Nash, 51, recently received a bachelor’s degree in psychology and cares for a nephew inside a family homeless shelter, but says his past convictions have prevented him from finding a permanent home. He says he became homeless when his landlord learned of his seven-year federal prison term and kicked him out of a rented room.

“He said he didn’t want any criminals in his house,” Nash says.

Legislation before the City Council, and backed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, could pave the way for Nash and thousands of other New Yorkers with criminal records to more easily find an apartment. The Fair Chance for Housing Act would bar landlords and brokers from conducting criminal background checks on prospective tenants, a barrier to housing for the formerly incarcerated and their families.

Advocates and lawmakers say the measure is crucial for addressing the city’s homelessness problem by enabling more New Yorkers to move out of shelters.

“New York City is in the midst of a homelessness crisis. There are thousands of people stuck in the shelter system who have the means to get housing, but have been denied over and over again because they have convictions in their past,” wrote more than 75 tenants rights and justice reform groups in a letter to Council Speaker Corey Johnson last week, urging him to call the bill up for a vote. “A conviction has an end date, shouldn’t the punishment?”  

The supporters include the Coalition for the Homeless, the Fortune Society and the John Jay College Institute for Justice & Opportunity.

The Fair Chance for Housing Act, or Intro. 2047, is modeled off similar laws elsewhere in the country, including Seattle’s three-year-old ordinance barring criminal background checks for apartment applicants. Policymakers there said they were motivated to end a form of housing discrimination that predominantly impacts people of color. Lawmakers in New Jersey passed similar legislation this week.

New York City has previously banned most employers from asking about criminal records or conviction history before making a conditional job offer. That measure, known as the Fair Chance Act or “Ban the Box” Law, still allows employers to rescind the offer so long as they provide the applicant with written information about the criminal record inquiry. 

New York’s Fair Chance For Housing Act goes further than the city’s employment law by completely prohibiting criminal history checks, except for landlords renting a room in a home they share.

Eighty individual advocates, including people with criminal convictions who have been denied housing because of their records, also signed the letter to Johnson and the Council Wednesday.

One of them, Harlem resident Hilton Webb, moved directly into the 30th Street Men’s Shelter after completing his nearly three-decade prison sentence for murder in 2017. Webb secured a room in a Far Rockaway apartment and spent months searching for a place of his own, but says he was unable to find a landlord willing to rent to him because of his criminal history. 

Webb, who recently earned his Master’s of Social Work, maintains his innocence but says that shouldn’t matter when looking for an apartment after serving his time.

“I spent over 27 years in prison. Shouldn’t that be enough?” he says. “The contract is supposed to be, if you do a crime you do your time and you’re done, but that is not the reality.”

A Council spokesperson said Johnson supports the legislation, which has gained 23 co-sponsors, and pointed to its inclusion in the Council’s adopted Reform and Reinvention Collaborative Plan

The spokesperson says Johnson “is working to bring the bill to a vote.”

Many landlords and their representatives remain reticent, however. The landlord lobby has opposed the Fair Chance for Housing Act, saying it takes away property owners’ ability to vet prospective tenants while potentially putting other renters in danger.

“The people who are going to suffer from that law are other tenants,” says Sharon Redhead, an East Flatbush property owner and member of the organization Small Property Owners of New York. “If you have a child molester next door, how is that fair to them?”

In written testimony to the City Council last year, the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) also opposed the bill. 

“An owner has an equal obligation to tenants already in the building to provide a safe, healthy and livable environment — the warrant of habitability,” REBNY wrote. “As currently framed, unfortunately, Intro. 2047 does not adequately address the rights of other tenants nor even the owner to appropriately balance the warrant of habitability with greater access to housing.”

REBNY, in addition, says the bill is too broad compared to similar laws in Oakland, Berkeley, Detroit, Chicago, which allow landlords to check for certain types of convictions and give applicants a chance to challenge potential discrimination.

Fair Chance for Housing supporters have responded to the concerns of critics or skeptics, particularly landlords wary of renting to someone with a past conviction. They say recidivism is rare among people with permanent housing and that reducing homelessness will actually drive down offenses.

“The cycle of homelessness and incarceration is well-known and well-documented,” the organizers wrote in the letter to Johnson. “The ability to have a stable life starts with having stable housing — and research shows that access to housing reduces recidivism.”

They also say allowing landlords to withhold an apartment based on their criminal record serves as a proxy for racist exclusion. People of color, particularly Black and African Americans, account for the vast majority of New Yorkers with criminal convictions, and their records are often the result of war on drugs-era over-policing and draconian sentencing.

“You cannot untangle the racism of the criminal legal system from the records that come from that system,” they wrote. “We can never put an end to our neighborhoods’ racial disparities or commit fully to fair housing without eliminating background checks.”

The Prison Policy Initiative found that people with criminal convictions are 10 times more likely to become homeless than the general public, but the cycle is self-perpetuating. People convicted of crimes are more likely to experience the conditions that can lead to homelessness, and people without stable housing are more likely to engage in illegal activity. 

To Webb, who now lives in a supportive housing site run by the Fortune Society, denying homes to people with convictions only denies the reality of New York’s homelessness crisis.

“Ninety percent of people going to prison are going to come out,” he says. “And if you don’t have a place to go then you’re going to go to shelter, and if not the shelter, then the street.”