Make a final push for fair housing for ex-offenders

Cook County commissioners passed an ordinance that forbids landlords from refusing to rent to ex-offenders. Now they must enact rules to make sure the ordinance works.

SHARE Make a final push for fair housing for ex-offenders

A ‘For Rent’ sign outside an apartment.

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  1. I am not my record. People are not their records. And as a state, we all lose when we continue to enact policies that limit people’s ability to live productive and stable lives after they have been involved with the justice system.. 

Policies that deprive people of housing because of their past interaction with the legal system contribute to recidivism and exact a heavy toll on Illinois taxpayers. By addressing that need for housing, the state could save $100 million a year, according to a new report by the Illinois Justice Project and the Metropolitan Planning Council. 

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Housing barriers help explain why the majority of homeless individuals surveyed for the report said that they had served time in prison. Policymakers could address these issues and save the state millions of dollars annually by taking steps to meet the demand for safe and stable housing for those with a record, such as reinvesting in job and housing programs, relying more on alternatives to prison, and lowering legal barriers to fair housing.

This spring, the Cook County Board of Commissioners took a major stand by passing the Just Housing Amendment to the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance. The measure prohibits landlords from automatically turning down a housing applicant with a past conviction; instead, landlords must conduct an individual assessment before deciding whether or not to rent to the person. If an applicant has a prior arrest but no conviction, the landlord cannot give any weight whatsoever to their arrest record. 

The passage of this amendment was the culmination of years of work by a broad coalition of individuals who have been directly impacted by housing barriers, as well as community organizers, policy advocates, and lawyers. 

I am one of those individuals. In May 2014, I was experiencing a health crisis related to a disability and was wandering around my neighborhood, lost and confused. People with disabilities are more likely to be arrested than people without them; and in this case, my neighbor called the police, who arrested me. Thankfully, the criminal charges against me were later dropped and I was fortunate enough to secure a lease in 2015 from a housing provider that either did not know or did not care about my arrest. Safe and secure housing has been an anchor for my health, and thus, for my ability to contribute meaningfully to society. 

But not everyone has enjoyed the same privilege. Numerous reports have shown that black housing applicants with records are less likely to receive the benefit of the doubt from landlords than white housing applicants with the same record. Access to safe and secure housing should be racially equitable. Policymakers must ensure that everyone can access this basic building block of a decent life — a place to call home.

In the coming weeks, the Cook County Board of Commissioners will decide on the regulations that will govern how the Just Housing Amendment is implemented. Our coalition is working with various stakeholders to ensure that the proposed rules serve the overall purpose of the amendment  — to ensure that everyone in Cook County has a fair chance at housing — and to oppose anything that would subvert this purpose, such as over-broad exclusions based on generalizations or stereotypes.

The Metropolitan Planning Council’s report highlights the scale of the re-entry problem. The Cook County Board has taken the lead in tackling the problem. Now, it is critical that commissioners not take any steps back.

Brent Adams is a senior vice president at the Woodstock Institute and a member of the Just Housing Initiative.

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