Seattle Must Do More to Help Former Prisoners Get Housing

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We all need a second chance at some point in our lives. Many of us have done something in our past we regret. That said, our mistakes should not define us, especially when we’ve paid the price for what we’ve done.

Council Member Herbold has been championing in her Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic Development and Arts Committee the “Fair Chance Housing” legislation, creating a policy that would give individuals who have been convicted of criminal offenses and completed their sentences another chance at getting stable housing. It would restrict landlords from considering convictions when deciding whether to offer tenancy to a person. In other words, a person who has served his or her term in prison will get a fair chance to get housing.

This is bold legislation. I support this approach because it is another step to help people acquire stable housing rather than dooming them back to the spin-cycle of the street to prison pipeline. We need this tool.
The level of incarceration in our country remains shockingly high. According to research offered by Professor Katherine Beckett at the University of Washington, nearly 25 percent of all the world’s prisoners are incarcerated in the United States. That percentage is higher than in China or Russia. “We’re number one” is not a badge of honor here.

From a race and social justice perspective, the statistics are even more alarming. The data varies from state to state, but the strong pattern is adult black males have felony convictions on their records five to seven times more frequently than adult white males. Arrests and convictions for drug-related crimes continue to be disproportionately frequent and severe for black males.

For individuals leaving prison with a felony on their record, their sentence never truly ends. Former inmates tell me they are penalized in so many ways: they struggle to find work, receive loans, gain an education, acquire social service benefits, or successfully reengage with the community they left behind when incarcerated. Race, class, gender and sexual orientation create additional barriers to success. The inclusion of the phrase “felons need not apply” in rental housing ads—or a door slamming before a conversation can begin—makes it nearly impossible to return as a fully participating community member.

This situation was made painfully clear to me by a 56 year old man named Carl who had come back to Seattle after years of prison time in Walla Walla. I met him through a re-entry program. He was full of hope. He held a high school diploma from a mid-west city but he whispered to me “I can’t read.” Clearly, he had been passed on and passed over much of his life. I spent time with him working on his reading and basic math skills. He was a smart guy. He looked for work; he looked for housing; he slept on his friends’ couches until they would put up with him no more. He wanted to find a two-bedroom unit so that he could bring his daughter to live with him. It didn’t happen.

Today in Washington, a landlord can use criminal records to screen tenants for up to seven years after the date the person is released from jail or prison. This is profoundly demoralizing for the person released from jail, because his or her jail sentence in effect continues on. It further contributes to our growing homelessness issues because people without options go back to the street.

 Being refused housing based on past convictions is especially unfair because empirical data fails to show that having a criminal record affects someone’s ability to be a good tenant. In fact, the reverse is true. Those returning from prison report they WANT housing. Statistics back this up. With a bit of coaching and a job, they can be responsible tenants.

Rather than further punishing those who have served their sentence, I want to try a new approach. I am committed to increasing our housing supply and working with landlords to get housing for those who have challenges. Programs are set up in prison offering good-tenant training to those who are returning. Part of our human services investments should expand these programs.

I am supporting the Fair Chance Housing Ordinance, including the proposed amendments.

The Ordinance with amendments will allow more people to access housing. Under our proposed legislation, arrests that did not lead to conviction or convictions that have been expunged, vacated, or sealed may not be used to screen tenants.

 Under this legislation—even with the amendments—a landlord may conduct a credit check, evaluate prospects’ income, look at their tenant history, check references, restrict sex offenders, and remove a bad tenant. What they can’t do is ban a person solely because of the time served in prison.

Our current system is flawed. Passing Fair Chancing Housing, without a “look back” period will help get people stabilized, reunite them with their family, open doors for jobs, and help us heal from the epidemic of mass incarceration. It doesn’t solve every problem, but it will help those who have served their sentences—as well as their families—get a second chance.

The City Council plans to vote on this legislation this month. I will be voting yes.

***This editorial was originally published 8/7/2017 in the Stranger