Commissioner Johnson pushes for end of housing discrimination against people with arrest records with new ordinance

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Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson (D-1) said he will fight to end housing discrimination against people with past arrest records. The legislator made the statement as the nation celebrates the 51st anniversary of the Fair Housing Act and recognizes April as Second Chance Month and National Fair Housing Month.

Commissioner Johnson is chief sponsor of the “Just Housing” amendment, as a new clause in the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance. The language will ban landlords and real estate agencies from denying tenants housing based solely on past arrest records. Housing providers will not be able to utilize blanket criminal records that eliminate applicants with any kind of criminal history regardless of crime type and how long ago the act occurred.

The Board is expected to hear testimony about the pros and cons of the amendment on Wednesday, April 24th before taking a full board vote the following day at the regular Cook County Board meeting.

“This amendment will provide greater family stability for more than 3,300 people who return to communities in the my district each year from prison,” Johnson said. “This is about helping residents find stable, affordable and safe housing—including those with arrest records. The Just Housing initiative works to reduce recidivism and reduce residential segregation and racial bias which further leads to disparities.”

Advocates for the Just Housing initiative include an array of housing, civil rights, criminal justice, and social justice organizations from throughout Illinois, including the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights, the Safer Foundation, the Community Renewal Society, West Side Health Authority, Housing Forward, the Sargent Shriver Center on Poverty Law, and the John Marshall Law School Fair Housing Legal Clinic, among others.

“This is a critical landmark ordinance that will, upon passage, level the playing field in Cook County for people with arrest and conviction records who have been exponentially impacted by housing insecurity that leads to homelessness,” said Anthony Lowery, associate vice president of community housing at Safer Foundation. “As a landlord of federally subsidized housing for the last 17 years, I have been in a unique position to witness the

miracles of rehabilitation that leads to the joy of permanent affordable housing. Passage of this ordinance will be a clear signal that people in Cook County will have the opportunity to have their humanity and rehabilitation seen in any housing application process. People should be more than a background check, and fair housing should be the right for all people to live wherever they choose.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recognized that issue in 2016 when it issued guidance to landlords that explained that they might be liable if they routinely exclude people with records, based on the longstanding legal standard of discriminatory impact. “A housing provider violates the Fair Housing Act (FHA) when the provider’s policy or practice has an unjustified discriminatory effect, even when the provider had no intent to discriminate.

“This amendment will expand the County’s fair housing protections by enabling people with arrests and certain conviction history to file complaints against housing providers to redress the wrongs they have suffered from discriminatory conduct,” Barbara Barreno-Paschall, an attorney with Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights said. “Housing providers may face penalties such as fines and damages for failing to conduct individualized assessments of qualified applicants who have arrests and certain conviction records before making a determination on their housing application.”

In addition, the Just Housing amendment also says landlords must provide notification if a housing denial is based on a criminal record by providing the applicant with their findings and a written reason for the denial of housing.

“This is Cook County’s step toward a fuller solution to the unlawful discrimination in real estate transactions based on one’s covered history with law enforcement agencies,” Commissioner Johnson added, “including arrests, convictions that are not substantially related to the offender’s residence, and records of offenses that have been ordered sealed or expunged.”

If adopted, this law will immediately go into effect in Chicago. However, municipalities will be able to op-out of the ordinance. “It is possible some will try it,” Johnson said. “But what city wants to be known as the place where people are discriminated against?”

The new amendment does not eliminate landlord discretion to deny rental of residential real property on “the basis of a current sex offender registration requirement pursuant to the Sex Offender Registration Act (or similar law in another jurisdiction); a current child sex offender residency restriction, or a criminal conviction, provided that the person has given the individual sufficient notice and opportunity to dispute the accuracy and relevance of the convictions and that denial is necessary to achieve substantial, legitimate interests in light of an individual assessment of the individual.”

“Our coalition brings together more than 100 local organizations who are passionate about this issue, and we’ve been working for years to break down the housing barriers that people with arrest and criminal records face,” says Gianna Baker, outreach manager of Housing Action Illinois and Just Housing Initiative leader. “We have backing from supporters with lived experience, housing advocates, social service providers, faith leaders, and community representatives. We all know this amendment is critical to building a more just, safer community.”

The Fair Housing Act was created to protect Americans from discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of housing based on color, race, national origin and religion, the act later extended to sex, disability, and family status. The month also remembers the April 4th assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 and his contributions to the Civil Rights Movement.

The Second Chance Month, first observed in 2017 and created by the NAACP, American Civil Liberties Union, the Charles Koch Institute, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, draws attention to the challenges that former inmates face and to restore the dignity denied to the 65 million Americans with a criminal record, which limits access to jobs, education, housing, and other things necessary for a full and productive life.

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