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Housing Matters: Pushing Landlords To Look Beyond A Criminal Record

Nancy, Marketta, and Maria
Ryan Denham
From left, Nancy Firfer with the Metropolitan Planning Council, Marketta Sims with Restoring Rights and Opportunities Coalition of Illinois, and Maria Moon from Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance, all panelists at the Bloomington conference.

Editor's note: This is part of a five-story series reported at the Housing Action Illinois conference in Bloomington on Oct. 24-25. The stories ran Wednesday, Oct. 30, on WGLT's Sound Ideas.

Thanks to Google and online court records, it's easier than ever to find someone's criminal record. 

And for those trying to rebuild their life after incarceration, that record can make it hard—or even impossible—to find housing. 

“In society, we always find somebody to outcast. Somebody has to be the scapegoat, the black sheep,” says Maria Moon, who grew up on Chicago’s west side and spent 13 years in prison. 

But let’s forget about that. Because Moon’s mantra is, “I am not my record.” What Moon really is, is a community organizer, a filmmaker, and an advocate for those who've been behind bars and want to find housing when they get out. She says too often, they can't.

Moon works for the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance. That group was part of a coalition that successfully won passage this year of the new Just Housing ordinance in Cook County. She spoke about the ordinance Oct. 25 at the Housing Action Illinois conference in Bloomington.

Housing providers in Cook County won't be able to consider certain aspects of criminal records—such as arrests, juvenile records, and sealed and expunged records. And for would-be tenants with a conviction on their record, Moon says housing providers will need to conduct an individualized assessment that considers mitigating factors.

Moon said that's huge. 

“They may want to present the fact that they were 17 years old, and now they’re 45. Or the fact that that happened 30 years ago. Or they have all these certificates or these rehabilitation classes they went to,” Moon said. “It’s just not looking at the person and saying, ‘You have a record,’ and judging them just based on that.”

The stakes are high, as is the number of people impacted. 

Every year, over 600,000 people return to their communities from prison and face myriad challenges, especially housing insecurity, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Rates of homelessness for formerly incarcerated people far exceed the rates observed across the general population.

Speaking at the Bloomington conference, Kate Walz with the Shriver Center on Poverty Law cited a 2015 study of recently incarcerated people and their families. It found that 79% of survey participants were either ineligible for or denied housing because of their own or a loved one’s conviction history.

Walz said America's discriminatory housing practices lag the progress made for jobseekers with a criminal record, who have more protections. Even big companies have been vocal about hiring people with criminal records. Just last week JPMorgan Chase announced a “second chance hiring” program for those convicted of minor crimes, such as disorderly conduct, personal drug possession and driving under the influence. 

“We haven’t seen that type of shift from the top from major landlords and property management companies, but we need to. Because just as someone needs a job, they need a home. And they need the ability to reconnect with their loved ones and community,” Walz said.

Cook County's ordinance is one path to address this. A new state law complements that ordinance.

The state law goes into effect Jan. 1 and will make it a Human Rights Act violation to deny someone housing on the basis of an arrest without a conviction, or due to a court record that has been expunged, sealed, or impounded from public view.

Walz said it's unlikely that justice-involved people and their supporters will have much luck in Congress addressing this issue at the federal level.

“And so we’re taking those opportunities to have one-on-one conversations at the state and local level about our values,” she said.

Walz said those new state and county laws are the result of justice-involved people—like Maria Moon—leading the charge, not just being background players or props at a press conference.

“Because (policymakers) are realizing this is my neighbor. This is somebody I went to high school with. Or this is somebody’s son that I know. And they actually do have a lot of power at the local and state level to make a big difference,” Walz said. 

Others are trying to attack the problem too. This year the Illinois Housing Development Authority is launching a program that will give rental assistance to those who are leaving prison.

It's small for now—about 100 people, mostly elderly or disabled people or those deemed "ready to work” in suburban Cook and Winnebago, Boone, Stephenson, and Lake counties. But it not only gives them money for rent, but also allows them to sign a lease before they even leave prison.

One less barrier to restarting their life and getting back on track.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.