Yesterday, the DC Council, in its final legislative meeting of this session, passed several bills that will make it easier for low-income residents to obtain and maintain employment and housing. While much of the attention on the Council and in the press was, deservedly, on a game-changing paid family and medical leave act, a bill passed unanimously that could be a game changer for many DC residents seeking housing: the Fair Criminal Record Screening Act for Housing (FCRSAH).

Often referred to as “housing ban the box,” FCRSAH is an extension of the employment ban the box law that DC has had in effect for several years. At its core, FCRSAH is a civil rights bill that will reduce housing discrimination against people who have already experienced racism at the hands of the criminal justice system. When people with criminal records search for housing now, that racism is compounded by irrational denials of their housing applications based on fears, myths and stereotypes about people who have records. Because of this discrimination, people with criminal records remain homeless longer, even if they have sufficient income or housing assistance to rent in the private market. And since housing instability is the biggest predictor of reoffending, and people experiencing homelessness often engage in daily activities that are criminalized, the cycle of homelessness and prison gets repeated over and over again.

FCRSAH takes much of its approach from the federal Fair Housing Act guidance on screening out housing applicants with criminal records, as well as social science studies on the root causes of why people reoffend. It changes the current rental housing scheme in the following ways:

  1. No landlord can ask about or consider arrests at any point in the housing application process. (The Act does not apply to landlords who live in their own building that has fewer than 3 rental units.)
  2. Landlords have to tell all applicants what the financial, employment, criminal and rental history eligibility criteria are prior to accepting an application fee. Applicants will no longer have to waste hundreds of dollars on application fees for apartments for which they are not qualified. Landlords also will have a harder time using credit or rental history as pretext to deny someone with a criminal record because the criteria are provided up front before the landlord knows whether the applicant has a criminal record.
  3. No landlord can ask about pending criminal accusations (defined as an indictment or formal charge) or convictions until after making a conditional offer of housing to the applicant.
  4. After a conditional offer, a landlord can only ask about or consider certain enumerated pending charges or convictions from the last 7 years – that 7 year clock starts from the date of conviction.
  5. If the applicant has a pending charge or conviction in the last 7 years for one of those crimes, then the landlord still has to consider 6 factors to determine if the criminal record is related to the applicant’s ability to be a good tenant: 1) nature and severity of the crime; 2) age of the applicant at the time of the crime; 3) how long it’s been since the crime occurred; 4) any information on rehabilitation or good conduct since the crime occurred, 5) the degree that the crime would impact other tenants or the property if it reoccurred; 6) and whether the crime took place in the applicant’s rental unit.
  6. If the landlord decides to deny the application at that point, it has to give the applicant a written notice stating why the application is being denied and advise the applicant of their right to file a complaint for violations of this Act.
  7. The applicant can then file a complaint at the Office of Human Rights and the landlord can be fined for violating the Act. Half of the fine goes to the applicant and the other half goes to the District government.

The Act won’t go into effect until DC designates enough money to cover the staff needed to enforce the law at the Office of Human Rights. We hope Mayor Bowser will include sufficient funding in her budget proposal for FY2018. If she does, the law will go into effect on October 1, 2017. After that, there will be a 6 month “grace period” for fines against landlords as the Office of Human Rights develops its public education curriculum and materials to implement the law.

The Legal Clinic has been engaged in advocacy around one form or another of this bill for more than a decade. We want to thank Councilmember Kenyon McDuffie for his strong leadership on this bill and Councilmember Bonds for co-introducing and supporting the progression of the bill. Staff members of the Judiciary Committee (Chanell Autrey, Jontae Clapp and Kate Mitchell) deserve special recognition for working so collaboratively with the community to improve the bill. Last, this bill would not have passed without the input, hard work and advocacy of people with criminal records, legal services providers, civil rights advocates, public defenders, nonprofit housing providers, the Office of Human Rights, the Office of the Tenant Advocate, and many others. We are incredibly excited that more of our clients will finally have a fair shot at housing because of this bill.