prison.jpgFor the over seven million Californians who once lived inside the state’s massive prison system, securing many of life’s basic necessities can be a challenge. Dragging a criminal record behind you makes finding gainful employment infinitely harder, which is why the unemployment rate for ex-cons is an astounding 25-30%. Jobs aren’t the only thing difficult for former criminals to secure–locating a stable living situation can be just as tough with a conviction on the books.

This difficulty is precisely why San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission wants to add conviction records to the list of protected categories, like race and sexual orientation, that landlords will be prohibited from asking about on rental applications.

The commission’s Executive Director Theresa Sparks says the policy’s goal is help turn around the lives of ex-cons.

“We’re not going to force somebody down someone’s throat if there’s really a legitimate reason,” Sparks told ABC7, “but just because they were arrested five or ten years years ago and haven’t done it again…That’s not a reason not to rent to them.”

While the change has the support of local law enforcement agencies like the Sheriff’s Department (Correction 7/12: According to Eileen Hirst of the SF Sheriff’s Department, though news orgs like ABC7 have reported that the Sheriff’s Dept was in favor of this change in text and broadcast reports, she says that the Dept has not taken a position on the issue. The Appeal regrets repeating this error.) and the District Attorney’s Office, many of the city’s landlords aren’t entirely on board with the idea of not being able to see if their prospective tenants are convicted law-breakers.

“The city of San Francisco is again trying to legislate in an arena that’s controlled by the federal government,” Janan New of the SF Apartment Association told ABC7. “You cannot discriminate against people when they come to rent an apartment under the current federal fair housing laws. In my opinion it would make it a moot point.”

While it would be a clear violation of the law for a landlord to refuse to rent to anyone convicted of a crime (that type of “arbitrary discrimination” is prohibited by California’s Unrich Civil Rights Act) landlords are allowed to require background checks for all applicants as they could be held liable for the negative consequences of renting to someone posing a health or safety risk to other tenants–meaning it’s possible a criminal record could come into play in a landlord’s decision-making process.

Securing housing is a crucial and often difficult part of an ex-con’s reentry into life on the outside. Individuals that have been convicted of drug crimes are barred from public housing, which significantly narrows their available housing options.

“[When someone gets released from prison,] they’ve got a bus ticket and ‘gate’ money, which is like 50 to 90 bucks,” Vincent Schiraldi, president of the advocacy group Justice Policy Institute told NPR.

“They don’t have a job. They can’t afford first and last month’s rent, which is huge. So they drift, from the homeless shelter to the couch of a friend to a low-rent hotel.”

The instability of a shelter or one of San Francisco’s myriad single room occupancy hotels isn’t the ideal living situation for someone trying to turn their life around, nor is returning to couches and spare bedrooms in the very same neighborhoods where they initially ran into trouble.

A Justice Department study found that former inmates returning to the street without stable living situation face, “a number of unfortunate collateral consequences…including increases in child abuse, family violence, the spread of infectious diseases, homelessness and community disorganization.”

There is a movement nationally to end housing discrimination against convicted criminals. Earlier this year, the Seattle Office for Civil Rights authored a law designating former criminals a protected class it’s illegal to discriminate against when housing and employment decisions.

The San Francisco proposal, which covers both housing and employment discrimination, will be the subject of two public forums held by the Human Rights Commission later this month:

7/20, 4-7pm
San Francisco City Hall, Room 263
1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place

7/25, 4-7pm
San Francisco City Hall, Room 400
1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place

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