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Cook County’s new law barring landlords from turning away tenants with certain criminal backgrounds faces controversy

Wednesday, September 04, 2019
Chicago Tribune
by Juan Perez Jr.

Four months after Cook County commissioners passed a measure to bar landlords from turning away renters with certain criminal backgrounds, the new law is mired in debate over how it will actually work in real life.

“Now it’s going to be a matter of debating and figuring out how to settle on rules that we all can live with,” county Commissioner Brandon Johnson said. Johnson was the ordinance’s chief sponsor when it was approved in April, and has introduced a measure to delay its implementation until Dec. 31.

“Look, you’ve got to come to some agreement,” Johnson said. "Where there clearly is agreement is that individuals who have backgrounds should not be scarred for the rest of their lives. Everybody agrees with that.”

The rest is a matter of debate, like Johnson said.

“This is complicated stuff, guys,” Michael Glasser, of the Neighborhood Building Owners Alliance, told commissioners on Wednesday. “What kind of guidance and help will we have?”

The amended county human rights law, when it takes effect, will prohibit landlords from asking potential tenants about certain aspects of their criminal background until after they have been deemed qualified to rent, or continue to live in, a property.

The law doesn’t apply to sex offenders or people who have a criminal conviction that, after an “individualized assessment,” shows that denial of housing based on the conviction “is necessary to protect against a demonstrable risk to personal safety and/or property of others affected by the transaction.”

That’s where things get more complicated. The Cook County Commission on Human Rights had to develop rules that, among other things, set out the process for the “individualized assessment." The proposed rules then needed to go before commissioners for approval.

Both sides, including landlords and criminal justice reform advocates, aren’t happy. There are three primary points of debate.

*The definition of “demonstrable risk.” The proposed rules say landlords may only consider criminal convictions that have occurred within the last five years, and then only crimes that present a “demonstrable risk” to safety and property. Those are defined to include some felony drug activity, plus violent crimes and criminal sexual conduct.

Some landlords want the definition of crimes to be broader, while some advocates don’t want any crimes to be suggested in the rules at all. Others say the five-year review period runs counter to state law that allows certain misdemeanor offenders to ask for their records to be sealed if the crimes occurred more than three years ago. Of course, others have suggested the review period should be longer.

*Disputes. The proposed rules say tenants can be asked to submit to a background check if they are pre-qualified for housing. If they’re denied because of their criminal history, tenants have 10 business days to contest or dispute the decision. After an applicant presents a dispute, a housing provider must conduct an “individualized assessment” to determine if a denial is necessary to protect safety and property.

Landlords feel some of those provisions would be too costly, because the dispute process would keep rental units off the market for a burdensome amount of time.

*Public housing. The draft rules don’t apply to entities who develop or operate low-income housing under federal law.

Advocates fear that exception will cut off a critical sector of the market to ex-offenders who may need access to affordable housing.

“Housing is a human right. Housing is a critical determinant to healthy communities,” said Michael Rabbitt of the Neighbors for Affordable Housing group. “Housing is one of the greatest challenges faced by people returning from prison or jail.”

Landlords may have to comply with the ordinance in 2020. Johnson doesn’t think another extension beyond Dec. 31 will be necessary.

“I think we’ll get to the bottom of it,” he said.

Twitter @PerezJr

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