Hochul aims to stop landlords’ knee-jerk rejections of ex-cons

Governor would also ban credit checks of rental applicants

Gov. Kathy Hochul, RSA President Joseph Strasburg, The Fortune Society's Andre Ward (Getty, Fortune Society/Illustration by Kevin Rebong for The Real Deal)
Gov. Kathy Hochul, RSA President Joseph Strasburg, The Fortune Society's Andre Ward (Getty, Fortune Society/Illustration by Kevin Rebong for The Real Deal)

Tucked into the 228 initiatives in Gov. Kathy Hochul’s new agenda is one to stop landlords from rejecting rental applicants just because they have criminal records or bad credit.

She bills it as an effort to control the state’s homelessness crisis.

Hochul will propose legislation to prevent owners from automatically rejecting prospective tenants because of a conviction or low credit score. Instead, landlords would have to assess the crime a tenant committed and their history of recidivism or lack thereof.

The measure is weaker than one that seemed headed for passage last month in the New York City Council before opposition by landlords helped beat it back. The city bill would have prevented landlords from even checking potential tenants’ criminal history.

Hochul would require property owners who check criminal backgrounds to take a holistic look at them, including whether they have reoffended. The idea is for owners to consider, for example, whether a tenant had a history of violent crimes or lesser offenses.

Still, one landlord group’s initial verdict on Hochul’s alternative suggests it will be a hard sell for multifamily owners.

Frank Ricci, the Rent Stabilization Association’s executive vice president, called it “absolutely preposterous” for “placing the onus on landlords to make judgment calls on whether a prospective formerly incarcerated tenant is rehabilitated.”

“The governor is being unrealistic in asking landlords to play the role of social worker, probation officer and therapist,” he said.

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RSA’s past comments on the city bill indicate that the group considers Hochul’s bill not only impractical but unnecessary.

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“No owner is going to absolutely say ‘no way’ just because someone committed a crime,” Joseph Strasburg, the group’s president, told The Real Deal last month. He noted that some convictions could be for actions that have since become legal, such as marijuana possession.

But discrimination against former offenders is rampant among landlords, according to the Fortune Society. It primarily hurts renters of color, the nonprofit says, and makes it more likely that they end up in homeless shelters. A 2007 study of over 600 landlords found that two-thirds did not accept applicants with a criminal background.

However, for owners surveyed, recidivism made a difference. The study found that over two-thirds of owners who said they were not accepting applicants with criminal histories would reconsider if a prospective tenant had not been convicted again after being released.

The Fortune Society, a sponsor of the bill that died in the City Council last month, said it respected the governor’s efforts to address housing discrimination, but called her proposal too modest.

“It looks like what’s being proposed may not go far enough,” said Andre Ward, an associate vice president at the charity.

Ward lamented that the governor’s proposal would still allow landlords to review criminal histories and reject ex-offenders. Such assessments would not be objective, he said.

He also expressed concern that the governor’s initiative could undermine the city legislation, should it ever pass. The Council bill would make it illegal for landlords to inquire about arrest or conviction records or deny on those bases.

A statewide ban on credit checks, which Hochul introduced alongside the criminal history proposal, is in the city bill that would ban background checks.

Ward said companies that perform credit checks are typically unmonitored and landlords often use the information to deny renters housing. People who have gone through the criminal justice system, as well as low-income renters, are less likely to have good credit.

“If the full proposal of what the governor is rolling out happens, it will diminish the impact of the citywide bill that we’re advancing,” he said.

Hochul’s proposals would supplement her five-year housing plan to build 100,000 affordable units, including 10,000 with dedicated support services for at-risk populations such as the formerly incarcerated.

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