Defeated by industry, criminal background check bill returns

Tenants previously helped real estate groups beat back City Council measure

Council member Keith Powers (Manhattan Community Board 5)
Council member Keith Powers (Manhattan Community Board 5)

The City Council is seeking to revive a measure that would bar property owners from making criminal background checks of prospective tenants and buyers.

Real estate professionals helped kill a nearly identical bill last year and seem poised to wage a similar fight if changes are not made to the measure. Council member Keith Powers, the prime sponsor, said he expects to discuss it further with stakeholders but wouldn’t speculate on potential amendments.

He said the bill would be a significant step in the city’s efforts to curb housing discrimination.

“We are in the middle of a housing and homelessness crisis,” Powers said. “To me, it’s time that we stop talking about the issue and do something about it.”

He noted that a new City Council and administration could give the bill the boost it needs to pass this year. Mayor Eric Adams has not commented on the legislation specifically, but did indicate support in his housing plan for the concept of providing such protection to tenants. The measure will be re-introduced at Thursday’s City Council meeting.

Opponents of the measure last year argued that the ban would make landlords liable if a tenant given a lease despite a criminal history then committed another offense in the building.

Powers’ bill carves out a few exceptions for owner-occupied housing. It also permits landlords and owners to review the state’s sex offender registry, though prosepective tenants or buyers must be given written notice about the inquiry.

One reason last year’s bill failed was because its sponsors were inflexible, an industry representative said.

“The negotiating posture last year was totally unacceptable for the real estate industry,” said Frank Ricci, executive vice president of the Rent Stabilization Association. “They are out there pushing the bill, but the way they should have done it was they should have sat down with various stakeholders.”

He noted that RSA’s members do not have “a blanket prohibition against renting to people who have a record,” but said owners need to be able to evaluate prospective tenants.

This time, for the most part, real estate groups are taking a wait-and-see approach. The Real Estate Board of New York indicated that it needs to review the legislation. The Community Housing Improvement Program said it supports efforts to end housing discrimination and is willing to work with the City Council, but warned that “the details of the bill matter.”

“If crafted poorly, it could impact other residents living in the building and open up housing providers to more liability and higher insurance costs,” Jay Martin, CHIP’s executive director, said in a statement.

Bills forbidding background checks or questions about criminal history can have unintended consequences. Some economists have found that employers respond to ban-the-box bills for job applicants by more often rejecting young Black men seeking employment, based on the assumption that they are more likely than other applicants to have a criminal record.