Willette Benford spent a little more than 23 years in prison, convicted of murdering a woman she was romantically involved with by running her over with a car.
She was released from prison earlier this year – nearly 25 years early – under a new state law that allowed domestic violence to be considered a mitigating factor in sentencing.
“The only reason why was to defend myself,” she said.
Since her release, Benford, 54, says she has found a job and begun rebuilding her life. But she has been unable to find a place to live because of how landlords view her criminal record.
“The first time I tried to present an application it was denied. They wouldn’t accept it, they said it was because of my background which is 25 years old,” Benford said, apparently referring to the 1995 murder. “I’m currently employed and I would pay my rent, I would be a good tenant — I’m not a threat anymore.”
Benford was one of about 30 people who spoke before a Cook County Board committee on Wednesday about the new Just Housing Ordinance.
Landlords, housing experts, activists and ex-offenders all weighed in as the Rules and Administration Committee worked on establishing rules ahead of the Dec. 31 implementation of the ordinance.
That ordinance, which passed the Cook County Board of Commissioners in April, is actually an amendment to the county’s housing ordinance.
The amendment adds language prohibiting potential landlords or property owners from asking about, considering or requiring the disclosure of “covered criminal history,” meaning arrest records, charges, juvenile records and conviction histories will be off limits to landlords until the potential tenant has been deemed qualified for the property.
The debate focused on balancing the rehabilitation of and compassion for ex-offenders with the safety of all tenants.
Dan Schermerhorn from the Illinois Association of Realtors told commissioners “criminal record screening is an essential function which helps owners and operators mitigate risk and ensure the safety and security of the residents and communities they serve.”
The ordinance would also create a process for property owners who seek to deny housing to a tenant with a criminal history to give notice to the potential or current tenant.
The proposed rules would limit housing providers from considering criminal convictions that are older than five years since convictions that are five years or older “do not represent a demonstrable risk to personal safety or property.”
An applicant would also have the ability to dispute the accuracy or relevance of a conviction. Proposed rules in the ordinance give the applicant five days to notify the housing provider they intend to dispute the background check and an additional five days to provide evidence.
Then a housing provider must either approve or deny the application within three business days.
Schermerhorn said that’s not enough.
“The proposal before you today acknowledges the importance of screening but it would still impose significant challenges for housing providers,” Schermerhorn said. “We hope these rules will be written carefully so that the property owners are not limited in their ability to ensure a safe and secure environment for their residents.”
Nichole Oswald, from the Chicagoland Apartment Association, talked both about the financial burden the ordinance could put on smaller landlords as well as safety, saying “we don’t want to have to tell [potential tenants] that our look-back period is less than the industry standard and that we can’t consider crimes like theft, fraud and weapons possession when we screen their future neighbors.”
Yohance Lacour, an ex-offender, pointed out the “hypocrisy” of the landlords seeking to speak against the timeline for conviction disputes.
“We’re talking about professional interests versus survival interests,” Lacour said. “If you gotta wait five days for appeals or what not you’re inconvenienced — if you have to wait seven years to find some housing that’s more than an inconvenience. At some point you have to think about some compassion.”
Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston, said the board will take all the comments and make a recommendation that will be voted on by the Rules Committee.
The extension of the effective date gives people more time to speak out, but “our goal here is to make sure that the rules are complete, they’re not misleading, the definitions are right and the enforcement of this will be done in an effective manner.”
“The goal here is not to be hammering people — the goal is to be finding housing for a group of people who have had difficulty finding housing and to have the landlords have good tenants who can pay their rent.”
Brent Adams argued there is more to tenants than an old rap sheet.
As a person with a record and living with disabilities, Adams said he bounced back and forth between jail and the emergency room for a period of time.
He found housing from a provider “that did not know or did not care about my arrest” and has lived there ever since.
Adams is a senior vice president of policy and communication with the Woodstock Institute, a nonprofit research and policy organization and self-described “good tenant by all accounts.”
“My personal story is important partly because it illustrates that a record, by itself, is insufficient information to perform an assessment as to what a crime means if it means anything at all relative to a person’s future behavior,” he said.