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Housing protection advances for those with past convictions — prompting congratulations, concerns

The committee seal of approval could signal a conclusion to a months-long back and forth between property owners and housing advocates.

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, left; then candidate Bridget Degnen, in 2018.
Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, left, in February; Bridget Degnen, then a candidate for Cook County commissioner, in 2018. File photos. 
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times; Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Rules designed to protect a potential tenant or homeowner from being discriminated against based on criminal history narrowly passed a Cook County committee Wednesday, offering what one commissioner dubbed “a tremendous opportunity to correct age-long wrongs” but prompting another to question whether it was “the most reasonable way to implement the ordinance.”

After months of wrangling, the county’s Rules and Administration Committee voted 5-4 to approve the rules for the “Just Housing” Ordinance, which is actually an amendment to a county housing ordinance that passed in April.

Housing advocates urged the committee to approve the rules, pointing to dropping temperatures making safe housing even more critical and the need to provide equity for those facing potential discrimination.

Commissioner Brandon Johnson, D-Chicago, was the lead sponsor for the ordinance in April. He’s “glad” the new rules passed and looks forward to the full County Board vote on Thursday.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to correct age-long wrongs that have systematically deprived black families, in particular, access to housing,” Johnson said after the measure passed. “This will open opportunities to individuals who have been stigmatized by their social economic status, and the goal has always been to give these families access to housing in Cook County.”

The committee seal of approval could signal a conclusion to a months-long back and forth between property owners trying to protect their business and tenant interests and housing advocates trying to help people with criminal histories get housing, a critical step for rejoining society.

Ahmadou Drame, director of policy, advocacy and legislative affairs for the Safer Foundation — an advocacy group and provider of services to people with criminal histories — said the housing coalition that worked on the ordinance and the rules were happy with the move forward.

“This ordinance is really about addressing racial and class inequities that people with arrest records face in Cook County,” Drame said. “This is a solid stepping stone in the right direction to providing a fair process and really a fair chance to housing.”

The rules have gone through several iterations, each one drawing pushback from both sides. The latest version includes a limit on the period of time a landlord can look back into a potential tenant’s convictions, capping it at three years.

Some property owners were still concerned about that limited period for reviewing a person’s record.

Commissioner Bridget Degnen, D-Chicago, vice-chair of the committee, voted no to the rules because it prohibits a potential landlord from “basing any adverse housing decision, in whole or in part, upon a conviction that occurred more than three years from the date of the housing application.”

“I agree with the ordinance and the rules,” Degnen said. “It’s just the blanket prohibition of considering criminal history after three years. It doesn’t seem to be the most reasonable way to implement the ordinance.”

Commissioner John Daley, D-Chicago, also voted no, citing the same concerns that Degnen did. The board’s two Republican members, Commissioners Sean Morrison of Palos Park and Peter Silvestri of Elmwood Park, also voted no.

Cook County Board Commissioner Peter Silvestri, left, and Finance Committee Chairman John Daley in 2011.
Cook County Board Commissioner Peter Silvestri, left, and Finance Committee Chairman John Daley at a County Board meeting in 2011. File Photo.
John J. Kim/Sun-Times

Mike Scobey, a lawyer for the Illinois Realtors, said his group is still opposed to limiting the look-back period to three years.

“We want to get people in the housing pipeline, but we do think there’s something for individual property owners, especially small ones, who would have some concerns about criminal history or being required to rent to individuals with backgrounds of a more severe nature,“ said Scobey, the group’s senior director of local advocacy and global programs.

Scobey said the property owners had asked for a longer look-back period if there were more “severe” convictions, such as aggravated assault or armed robbery, in a potential tenant’s background. That didn’t happen.

Now, Scobey says, the focus will be on educating property owners ahead of the ordinance going into effect Dec. 31.

They’ve asked for an extension or grace period to make sure landlords and others understand the ordinance. Johnson is on board, but the length of the grace period hasn’t been decided yet, though it will not impact the ordinance going into effect next month, Johnson said.

Along with that three-year period for reviewing a person’s criminal history, the rules that passed the committee Wednesday include requiring landlords to consider whether disabilities such as physical impairment, mental illness or addiction played a role in a conviction.

That rule and other revisions came before the Cook County Commission on Human Rights earlier this month. That commission will be tasked with releasing reports in January, April, July and October of complaints they receive and their outcome to make sure potential tenants aren’t being discriminated against.

The committee vote means the rules will come before the full Board of Commissioners at their Thursday meeting.