Criminal history bill overhauled after defeat by landlords

Measure now allows some background checks and seems likely to pass

Council Amends Criminal Background Check Bill
RSA's Joe Strasburg and Council member Keith Powers and CHIP's Jay Martin (Getty)

Two years ago landlords helped defeat a New York City bill that would ban criminal background checks on potential renters and homeowners. Now they have secured changes to the measure that may push the measure over the finish line.

A new version of a bill allows landlords to reject rental applicants based on recent misdemeanor and felony convictions. A misdemeanor can be considered within three years of the applicant’s release from prison or, if not incarcerated, sentencing. For felonies, the threshold is five years.

The amended language largely mirrors that of the state’s Clean Slate Act, which Gov. Kathy Hochul signed into law in November. Under that law, individuals who remain crime-free can have their misdemeanor and felony convictions sealed after three or eight years, respectively, of being sentenced or released from prison. Violent crimes are not automatically sealed, however.

The latest version of the City Council bill, sponsored by Council member Keith Powers, otherwise bars discrimination against prospective tenants or homeowners based on criminal history. As with an earlier version of the measure, landlords can still consider sex-offender registries and convictions.

 Owner-occupied one- and two-family homes are exempt from the bill.

The Rent Stabilization Association helped kill the original version of the bill at the end of 2021, arguing that landlords would be liable if they rented to someone with a criminal record who then went on to commit a crime within the building.

During a hearing on the bill, the Real Estate Board of New York and the Community Housing Improvement Program testified that they supported the measure’s intent but that its terms should be modified. Council members might have been more persuaded by tenants who did not want previously convicted neighbors.

The measure was revived last year, but Mayor Eric Adams called for changes that would allow building owners to review specific types of offenses that occurred during a limited period of time.  

Frank Ricci, executive vice president of RSA, called the original version of the bill “unworkable from a public safety perspective.” He said the changes underscore the “importance of advocacy and dialogue.”

“Owners believe that everyone is entitled to a second chance, but their primary responsibility is to the safety of their existing tenants,” he said in a statement. “The state and city bills enable owners to fulfill this important responsibility.”

Jay Martin, executive director of the Community Housing Improvement Program, said his organization had close to 30 meetings with lawmakers to hash out a path forward for the measure that addressed landlord concerns. In an interview, he said he believes this strategy should be the path forward on thorny policy issues where the odds are stacked against the industry. 

In this case, the initial bill had widespread support in the City Council but CHIP worked to revamp it.

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“The bill that looks to be passed by the Council is a direct result of property owners’ voices being heard and lawmakers’ willingness to listen,” Martin wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “Not in combat but collaboration.”

Powers said the amended bill is the result of working with numerous stakeholders to strike a “balance between maintaining safety and addressing housing discrimination.”

“Every New Yorker who has served their time and is working hard to rebuild their life after incarceration deserves a second chance,” he said in a statement. “The evidence is clear that access to stable housing reduces recidivism and makes re-entry into a community much more successful.”

The bill also requires a “fair chance housing process,” in which a building owner who intends to turn down a tenant based on a misdemeanor or felony conviction must notify the tenant and provide documentation for the basis of the rejection.

Owners must provide a written explanation for the rejection and how the criminal history is relevant to “a legitimate business interest of the property owners.” Tenants will also have the opportunity to respond and to correct erroneous information about their criminal history.

The measure also states that building owners cannot be held liable for the criminal actions of tenants with criminal histories.

Ensuring that housing is not automatically closed off to formerly incarcerated New Yorkers could ease the strain on the city’s shelter system, which has been overwhelmed by new migrants. Every year since 2015, between 40 and 55 percent of those leaving New York state prisons went right into city shelters, according to a 2023 report by the Coalition for the Homeless.

Andre Ward of the Fortune Society, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of formerly incarcerated individuals, is optimistic that the measure will pass before the end of the year. His organization supported the original bill.

“While we would have preferred the initial version of the bill, we are grateful that we have gotten to a place where there is some forward movement,” he said.

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