On July 11th, the DC Council’s Committee on the Judiciary held a public hearing on Bill 21-0706, the “Fair Criminal Record Screening for Housing Act of 2016 (the “Bill”).” Introduced by Councilmembers McDuffie and Bonds in April of this year and cosponsored by 10 members, the Bill aims to fight discrimination against housing applicants with criminal records. In particular, it aims to preclude housing providers from requiring applicants to disclose their criminal history before a conditional offer has been made and it limits the types of accusations and convictions that can be used to deny housing to an applicant. The Bill is an extension of the “Fair Criminal Record Screening Act of 2014” (also known as “Ban the Box”) which restricts the ability of employers to inquire about and use criminal records to deny applicants employment opportunities.

For so many, having a criminal history poses a substantial barrier in obtaining housing, often regardless of the type of offense, the amount of time that has passed since the conviction, or even whether an individual was ultimately convicted. That criminal history can be used to deny housing to an individual perpetuates the damaging racial and socioeconomic discrimination so deeply rooted in our criminal justice system. At the hearing, a number of witnesses presented heartbreaking accounts of the hardships they experienced in seeking housing upon reentry. One woman shared that after being arrested for defending herself, she was turned away from temporary housing before the case had even gone to court. Another woman discussed relapsing after being repeatedly denied housing due to her criminal record and, despite her determined efforts to recover from her addiction and find housing, revealed that she is still homeless today. We have heard countless stories from our own clients’ frustrating application denials. One of our clients could not find someone to rent to her because of a 20-year-old solicitation conviction. Since the conviction, she had raised a family and developed a disability. Unable to find housing, she died in a homeless shelter.

Like several of the other advocates testifying, we presented recommendations to further strengthen the Bill in its efforts to confront this pervasive issue. Specifically, we encourage the DC Council to expand the Bill to also cover considerations of rental and credit history, which present comparable discriminatory issues and are often used as a proxy for criminal screenings. In addition, we call for the Bill’s language to be tightened to better adhere to the federal guidance on fair housing compliance, for example, by limiting the time period and types of offenses that can be considered. Another key amendment to the Bill would require landlords to notify tenants of the reason for their denial and would provide stronger means for relief for aggrieved applicants. A more comprehensive summary of the Legal Clinic’s recommendations for amending the Bill can be found here.

Requests from other advocates at the hearing included expanding the reach of the Bill to apply to providers of housing assistance in addition to housing providers, as well as encouragement to foster partnerships across the District between agencies, organizations, and those with lived experiences throughout this process and in the implementation of the Bill after its enacted.

The vast majority of those testifying at the hearing wholeheartedly supported the goal of the Bill, including Monica Palacio, Director of the Office of Human Rights, the agency responsible for enforcement. In all, the hearing saw fifteen advocates backing the Bill while only two organizations—the D.C. Association of Realtors (DCAR), and the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington (AOBA)—provided testimony in limited opposition. These organizations’ criticisms largely focused on liability concerns and a preference for relying on the federal guidance without implementing local legislation. However, as Councilmember McDuffie noted during the hearing, the federal guidance provides “a floor, not a ceiling” and does not limit the Council’s efforts to expand protection. He went on to say, “I don’t mind, as a legislator, being at the forefront of an issue and trying to do what we can to provide a better quality of life and more opportunities for this basic need in the District of Columbia.”

We commend the efforts of Councilmembers McDuffie and Bonds for introducing this bill and we look forward to continuing to work collaboratively with the Council and the community to strengthen it as one key step toward eradicating discrimination against people with criminal records in housing.

The Legal Clinic’s complete testimony can be found here.