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EDITORIAL: Don’t punish landlords to make more housing available for ex-offenders

Rental buildings on South Homan Avenue in Chicago. | Sun-Times file photo

If you’re a landlord, you most likely want to know if a potential tenant has a criminal history.

That’s common sense.

But an amendment to Cook County’s housing ordinance, approved Thursday by the County Board, attempts to limit how and when a landlord can ask about somebody’s criminal past.

A landlord, under the new rules, still will be allowed to ask about an applicant’s criminal past, but only as a discrete second step in the vetting process. The landlord first will have to complete the rest of the vetting process, such as determining whether the applicant has a sufficient income and acceptable credit rating.

We appreciate the laudable intent of the new rules, which is to make it easier for ex-offenders to find a place to live. A criminal record, in most cases, should not be an automatic reason to turn away a possible tenant. But, best we can tell, the board approved the rules without giving landlords a fair chance to be heard.

There is a danger, we believe, that the new rules will confuse landlords and burden them with pointless paperwork while doing nothing to improve access to housing for ex-offenders.

The new rules won’t go into effect for six months, allowing time for fine-tuning. We would argue for an even longer delay, or for scrapping changes altogether. There are too many unanswered questions and potential risks.

Exactly how will the new rules be enforced? What kind of records will landlords have to maintain to prove, if accused of violating someone’s civil rights, that they followed the rules? Who will decide how much vetting of a prospective tenant is sufficient before the issue of a criminal record even can be raised?

What in a prospective tenant’s criminal past constitutes legitimate grounds for refusing to rent to him or her? Murder is a deal-breaker, we assume. Sex offenses, too. But what about armed robbery? Or felony shoplifting?

And if the most recent offense occurred years ago, at what point is a landlord no longer allowed to count it against an applicant?

Landlords say they worry about being set up. They fear they will be accused of discrimination even if they do their best to follow the letter and spirit of the new rules.

All fair-minded people want to eliminate obstacles to ex-offenders turning their lives around. Making it easier for ex-offenders to find an affordable place to live is an important way to help.

But federal anti-discrimination regulations already prohibit landlords from flatly refusing to rent to anybody with a criminal record. And while the federal rules attempt to strike a balance on a sensitive issue, we’re not sure what the new county rules really add.

Under guidelines set out by the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development in 2016, landlords are allowed to consider a prospective tenant’s criminal history, but they are not allowed to end the vetting process there. They also must weigh other factors.

Unlike the county ordinance, though, the federal rules don’t impose an artificial two-step process. From the outset, even as they vet a prospective tenant in other ways, landlords are free to ask whether the applicant has a criminal background and conduct a criminal background check.

The landlords’ concerns are not baseless. Every experienced landlord can tell you about good tenants and bad tenants, and they will tell you that a criminal record can be a big red flag. There’s nothing unfairly “discriminatory” about acknowledging it.

One Chicago landlord, Cherie Travis, who spoke before Thursday’s vote by the County Board, said she rented to three ex-offenders who all had drug offenses. One, she said, “up and left.” The second set up a meth lab. The third stole mail from other tenants.

We believe in redemption. We believe in laws that support ex-offenders and improve the odds that they will lead more law-abiding lives. We have supported, for that reason, “ban the box” laws that prohibit employers from including a question about a job applicant’s criminal record on a standard application form. Employers should be allowed to ask that question, just not until the personal interview stage.

But we struggle to see how the county’s amended housing ordinance will further this noble goal.

In the real world, smaller landlords, renting out units in two-flats and three-flats, might just ignore the ordinance. They’re not about to curtail their own sense of how much criminal background vetting is necessary, and when it should be done, before renting to somebody who might be living right downstairs.

Other landlords might view the county’s new rules as one more reason to get out of the affordable housing business altogether, which could actually lead in time to less available housing for ex-offenders.

The County Board got this one backward. They passed a law before holding the proper hearings.

So fine. Let’s have the hearings now.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.