City Council Likely to Limit Criminal Background Checks by Landlords

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The New York City Council is expected to pass a bill on Wednesday that would limit the ability of landlords to use criminal records to screen tenants.

Cities like Detroit and Oakland, Calif., have passed similar legislation. Proponents of the measures say background checks penalize people who have already served their sentence or who may have been treated unfairly by the criminal justice system.

New York City’s bill has been narrowed from an earlier version that was introduced in 2020, which opponents said was overly broad and could make residential buildings unsafe.

The latest version of the bill allows landlords to look for and reject applications based on misdemeanor convictions within the past three years and felony convictions within five years.

Making housing more accessible can help prevent crime, according to several studies.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Why It Matters: Having a conviction can make it hard to find housing.

There are an estimated 750,000 people in New York City who have a conviction on their records. They are often barred from buying a house or renting an apartment because of those convictions, according to testimony from city officials, housing advocates and landlord groups.

That makes it more likely for them to slip into homelessness, which is one of the biggest problems in the city. More than 122,000 people live in city shelters, according to the most recent figures.

Making housing more accessible, however, can help prevent crime, according to several studies.

There is also evidence that background checks can inadvertently penalize people by returning inaccurate results.

Background: The bill tries to balance tenant rights with safety worries.

The bill is the product of years of negotiations between advocates of criminal justice reform, landlord groups, City Hall and the City Council.

Similar legislation was introduced in the Council in 2020 but failed to pass.

The current legislation was introduced last year by Councilman Keith Powers, a Manhattan Democrat. It incorporates the views of some landlords and tenants who see background checks as a safety measure.

“We think the bill that we’re bringing for a vote does strike the right balance,” Councilman Powers said.

In addition to allowing landlords to conduct background checks for set periods of time, the bill allows background checks in cases involving one- and two-family homes where the owner also lives. It also allows landlords to screen based on convictions of certain sex crimes.

Andre Ward, associate vice president of policy at the Fortune Society, a nonprofit group that works on behalf of formerly incarcerated people, said he supported the bill while acknowledging it was “not ideal.”

“But in the end we want to make sure this piece of legislation impacts as many people as possible,” he said.

In a statement, Mayor Eric Adams signaled his support and thanked the City Council for putting “the proper guardrails in place” and ensuring the bill has “the maximum intended impact.”

What the Critics Say: The proposal is too broad.

Even though the proposal introduced last year had the support of most City Council members, some tenants, landlord groups and Mr. Adams asked for changes to the bill’s language over fears that the rules were overly broad. Some are still unsatisfied.

“We need to know as much as we can about people whom we are inviting to join our community,” said Mary Ann Rothman, the executive director of the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums.

Ms. Rothman said the council had been asked to help shape the final version of the bill, and was encouraged that property owners were given a limited ability to conduct background checks. But she said the group was still “troubled” by the legislation.

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