Two years after the District made it harder for private employers to reject job applicants with criminal histories, the D.C. Council wants to put similar restrictions on landlords, barring them from automatically denying housing to ex-offenders whose conviction records date back more than seven years.
The legislation, given initial approval by the council Tuesday night, also would prohibit rental-property owners from summarily rejecting prospective tenants who have more recent criminal backgrounds.
In those cases, often involving newly released prisoners, landlords would have to base decisions on guidelines that are included in the statute. And housing applicants who think they have been illegally turned down could appeal to the city’s Office of Human Rights, possibly resulting in financial penalties for property owners.
At a time of growing gentrification in Washington, supporters said, the bill is partly intended to help reduce recidivism by making it easier for ex-offenders to find places to live in an increasingly tight and expensive rental market.
“Finding affordable housing is a challenge for everyone in the District, and even more so for returning citizens,” said council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), a co-sponsor of the legislation, which is set for a final council vote this month.
About 60,000 people in the District, or nearly 10 percent of the population, have criminal records, according to a council report, and roughly 8,000 residents are freed from incarceration annually. “This bill levels the playing field so they have a chance to compete for an already scarce resource,” McDuffie said.
The employment law, enacted in 2014, has the same goal of easing the transition of convicted criminals into normal society. Most private employers and the District government are barred from inquiring into a job applicant’s possible criminal history until after a “conditional offer of employment” has been made.
Then, if it turns out the applicant has a conviction record, the job offer can be withdrawn only for “legitimate business reasons,” based on a half-dozen factors specified in the legislation. The statute — commonly called “ban the box,” for the box on a job application that asks about a criminal record — prohibits employers from considering or even inquiring about criminal charges that did not lead to convictions.
The proposed housing law, which has a similar framework, is unique in the Washington area, the council report says. But it resembles statutes in several jurisdictions across the country, including Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The council’s judiciary committee approved the legislation this month despite opposition from the D.C. Association of Realtors, which represents nearly 2,700 real estate professionals in Washington, including rental-property managers.
In written comments to the committee, the association said the law would be costly, cumbersome and confusing for landlords to implement. Violations could result in fines of up to $5,000, depending on the circumstances.
The group said it “understands successful reentry for the District’s returning residents has been a serious problem for many years.” However, “while we entirely support the intent of the legislation,” it is “critical for our Association to make sure the rental community is abundantly clear on their obligations . . . and does not run into dangerous liability situations in which they were trying to act in a fair and reasonable manner.”
Like the employment law, the housing bill would forbid consideration of criminal allegations that did not result in convictions.
“Many individuals with . . . arrest records but no convictions face hardships in securing housing,” the council report says.
“Moreover,” it adds, “African Americans and Hispanics are arrested, convicted and incarcerated at disproportionate rates compared to their share of the U.S. population, and as a result, housing procedures that utilize criminal records in the application process likely disproportionately negatively impact home-seekers of color.”
The bill would not apply to the D.C. Housing Authority, which operates several dozen public housing complexes and is governed by federal rules concerning tenant applications. It also exempts landlords who reside in their buildings and have fewer than four rental units, such as a homeowner with boarders or a basement tenant.
Otherwise, the law would be applicable throughout the District’s rental market, McDuffie’s office said, including at privately owned apartment complexes for low-income tenants who receive government rent subsidies.
Initially, when reviewing a rental application, a landlord would not be allowed to ask about the prospective tenant’s possible criminal history or do a criminal-background check. Those issues would come up only later, if the property owner, based on all other information, gives the applicant “conditional” approval.
After that, the landlord could inquire into criminal history. If the applicant has a conviction that is more than seven years old, it would not have to be disclosed, regardless of what type of crime was committed, and the property owner could not legally use it as a basis for rescinding the rental approval.
As for apartment-seekers with more recent convictions or pending charges, the bill specifies 45 offenses that might be disqualifying, in the categories of homicide, burglary, assault (including sexual assault), arson, prostitution, fraud, kidnapping, robbery and crimes involving terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
However, to legally reject a rental application based on those crimes, a landlord would have to fairly determine “that the withdrawal achieves a substantial, legitimate and nondiscriminatory interest,” the bill says. The legislation lists factors that the property owner would have to consider in making that decision.
The rejected applicant could then appeal to the Office of Human Rights, which would investigate and possibly mediate the dispute or impose penalties.