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Curb Landlords’ Use of Criminal History, Credit Scores

Curb Landlords’ Use of Criminal History, Credit Scores
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Governor Cathy Hochul, RSA President Joseph Strasbourg, Andre Ward of The Fortune Society (Getty, Fortune Society / Illustration by Kevin Rebong for The Real Deal)

Governor Cathy Hochul, RSA President Joseph Strasbourg, Andre Ward of The Fortune Society (Getty, Fortune Society / Illustration by Kevin Rebong for The Real Deal)

Tucked in 228 initiatives is Gov. Cathy Hochhol’s new agenda to prevent landlords from turning down rental applications simply because they have criminal records or bad credit.

She described it as an attempt to control the homelessness crisis in the country.

Hochul will propose legislation to prevent landlords from automatically rejecting potential renters because of a conviction or low credit score. Instead, landlords will have to assess the crime the tenant has committed and their history of recidivism or lack thereof.

The measure is weaker than the measure that appeared to be passed last month by the New York City Council before opposition from landlords helped overcome it. The city bill would have prevented landlords from checking the criminal history of potential tenants.

Hochul will require property owners who check criminal backgrounds to take a comprehensive look at them, including whether they have committed the crime again. The idea is for the landlord to consider, for example, whether the tenant has a history of violent crime or lesser crime.

However, the owners group’s initial judgment on the Hochul replacement indicates that it will be difficult to sell to multifamily owners.

Frank Ritchie, executive vice president of the Rental Stability Association, called it “completely preposterous” to “put the onus on landlords to make judgments about whether a previously incarcerated potential tenant has been rehabilitated.”

“The governor is unrealistic in asking landlords to play the role of social worker, probation officer and therapist,” he said.

Previous RSA comments on the city bill indicate that the group considers Hochul’s bill not only impractical, but unnecessary.

No owner would say ‘completely ‘impossible’ just because someone has committed a crime, said Joseph Strasbourg, president of the group. The real deal Last month. He noted that some of the convictions could be for acts that have since become legal, such as marijuana possession.

But according to the Fortune Society, discrimination against former offenders is widespread among landlords. The nonprofit says it primarily harms renters of color, and increases the likelihood that they will end up in homeless shelters. A 2007 study of more than 600 landlords found that two-thirds of them did not accept applicants with a criminal background.

However, for the owners surveyed, a return to criminality made a difference. The study found that more than two-thirds of landlords who said they would not accept applicants with a criminal history would reconsider if a potential tenant was not convicted again after their release.

The Fortune Society, the sponsor of the bill that died in city council last month, said it respects the governor’s efforts to tackle housing discrimination, but described its proposal as too modest.

“It appears that what is being proposed may not be enough,” said Andre Ward, the charity’s associate vice president.

Ward lamented that the governor’s proposal would allow landlords to review criminal histories and dismiss past offenders. He said that such assessments would not be objective.

He also expressed concern that the governor’s initiative could undermine city legislation, if ever passed. The council bill would make it illegal for landlords to inquire about records of arrest, conviction or denial on those grounds.

A statewide ban on credit checks, which Hochul introduced along with a criminal history proposal, is in a city bill that would ban background checks.

Ward said companies that run credit checks are usually unsupervised and landlords often use the information to deny housing to tenants. People who have been through the criminal justice system, as well as low-income renters, are less likely to get good credit.

“If the full proposal of what the governor is putting up takes place, it will reduce the impact of the citywide bill that we are introducing,” he said.

Hochul’s proposals will complement a five-year housing plan to build 100,000 affordable units, including 10,000 with support services intended for at-risk residents such as former inmates.

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