As a legislator, I seek to balance interests in making public policy. In 2017, I sponsored the Fair Chance Housing Ordinance to end discrimination against renters with criminal legal system involvement and:
- Support safer communities – because housing reduces recidivism
- Promote strong families; half of our nation’s children have at least one parent with a criminal background.
- Stand for fairness – punishing people who have served their time or are not found guilty is at odds with a just society. If you’ve served your time, you shouldn’t still be punished.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate, higher than Russia. In communities of color, our criminal legal system reeks of disproportionality, with more stops by police, arrests, and convictions, as well as higher incarceration rates and longer sentences. Fifty-five percent of people living homeless – also disproportionately people of color – report criminal background as barriers to housing. Unsurprisingly, people who were incarcerated are ten times more likely to experience homelessness than those who were never incarcerated.
If a recent court ruling stands, Seattle will stop banning criminal background checks on renters. Nevertheless, like many other cities (San Francisco, Newark, Chicago, Austin, and Washington, D.C.), Seattle can still, like many other cities, (San Francisco, Newark, Chicago, Austin, and Washington, D.C.) prohibit landlords from discriminating against people with criminal legal system involvement.
Should this ruling stand, Seattle may have to find new ways to ensure that criminal background information seen is not information that is used. How can we ensure landlords don’t use this information to deprive people of housing?
There is no research that demonstrates that someone with a criminal history is less likely to be a good tenant. One in three of us have criminal system involvement. And again, people with criminal legal system involvement are less likely to commit another crime if they have housing. I’d expect anyone supporting safer communities to oppose discrimination against people with prior criminal legal system involvement.
There’s the story of Christopher Poulos, who was offered work with the Obama administration, received a top-secret clearance required for the job despite his prior conviction, but couldn’t rent an apartment. Here in Seattle, there are many examples of residents who tell us that the Fair Chance Housing ordinance was the only reason their family was able to move into their home.
This court ruling will not impact how Seattle regulates screening people on a sex offender registry – because the law already allows landlords to get those records and consider them – only for adults – and only if there is a legitimate business reason.
In my experience as a policymaker, questions often arise about the nature of contracts when we enact new landlord-tenant regulations. Why do we need laws when the relationship between landlords and tenants are governed by contract? There are two elements of rental housing contracts that make them unique from business contracts. These two elements create the very legal foundation for our landlord-tenant laws:
- The subject of the contract; and
- The balance of power between the parties to the contract.
The subject of the contract between landlord and tenant is housing. It is often said that housing is a human right. That sounds nice, but what does it mean? Housing is not simply a building—housing gives us access to opportunities for ourselves and our families, as well as access to health and safety.
Without protections outside of the rental housing contract enacted by policymakers, the unequal balance of power between the occupant of housing and the owner of that housing would result in:
- Summary evictions of residents and their families without cause or due process
- Entry into homes without notice
- Discrimination barring families from housing without a basis
- Rent increases without notice, excessive move-in fees, and withholding of deposits resulting in inability to sustain housing and economic barriers to accessing new housing
- Substandard and dangerous conditions without recourse for improvements
Operating rental housing controls an aspect of the lives of renters that is more impactful than any other commercial relationship. We want people to take on this responsibility because people need rental housing. I have had friends with extra rooms, a mother-in-law unit, or an extra family home who are considering offering their property to community members in need of housing. I encourage them to learn the local laws and regulations and ask themselves if they can uphold their responsibility as a housing provider. This responsibility includes not only adhering to their contractual agreements but also the laws of their jurisdiction. A Seattle landlord was recently quoted saying: “Our laws in Seattle are created due to the unfortunate reality that individuals continue to experience discrimination and uninhabitable living conditions, and laws must be in place in order to protect them. Landlording can be challenging, but I do not feel burdened or overwhelmed by the laws put in place to protect my community. Just like any other type of small business, I need to comply with the rules for the benefit and safety of all.”
Those laws have been created to address barriers to housing that would otherwise result in more homelessness, less community safety, uprooted families, and an impediment to our collective striving towards a more just society.
As the Councilmember from Seattle’s District 1, Lisa Herbold represents the neighborhoods of West Seattle and South Park. Before serving as a Councilmember, starting in 2016, she was a legislative aide for eighteen years. Lisa is the current chair of the Seattle City Council’s Public Safety & Human Services Committee.
Throughout her professional life, Lisa has worked on issues of access, fairness, and a commitment to a shared quality of life. She has helped craft and pass public policy that includes Paid Sick Leave, Secure Scheduling for retail and food service workers, minimum compensation regulations for gig workers, legislation that prevents source of income and criminal legal system involvement discrimination against renters, a police Observers’ Bill of Rights, and an acclaimed criminal justice diversion program. Each of these examples of model public policy has been replicated in jurisdictions across the country, showcasing just a few samples of the work Lisa Herbold has done to help Seattle residents.