City Council limits criminal background checks for tenants

Landlords win revisions, support final version of bill

City Council Passes Criminal Background Check Bill

From left: Keith Powers and Jim Whelan (Getty, REBNY)

Starting in 2025, New York City landlords will be barred from performing criminal background checks on some tenants.

The City Council on Wednesday approved a bill that limits a landlord’s ability to reject rental applications based on past convictions.

The measure, however, allows landlords and brokers to consider misdemeanor convictions in cases where the renter was released from prison (or sentenced, if not incarcerated) within the past three years. The threshold for felonies is five years.

The bill, dubbed the Fair Chance for Housing Act, was introduced in 2020, and faced swift backlash from real estate groups. The initial bill barred most criminal background checks, though it allowed building owners to consult sex offender registries.

The version that passed Wednesday, however, has the support of landlord groups and criminal justice advocates.

The Community Housing Improvement Program and the Rent Stabilization Association both credited their communication with lawmakers for helping to change the measure. “We applaud the process that the sponsor and members undertook to craft a thoughtful bill that will make housing better for all,” CHIP executive director Jay Martin said in a statement. 

Mayor Eric Adams and the Real Estate Board of New York had voiced support for the intent of the original bill, but said changes were needed. REBNY gave the revised version its blessing.

“This legislation sensibly allows property owners to continue performing appropriate criminal background checks, while increasing housing opportunities for justice-involved individuals who are deemed to pose no threat to others,” REBNY’s Ryan Monell said in a statement.

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The approved bill, sponsored by Council member Keith Powers, states that building owners cannot be held liable for the criminal actions of tenants with criminal histories. It also exempts owner-occupied one- and two-family homes from the bill’s restrictions.

Those who consult “reviewable” criminal history under the law must provide rejected rental applicants with a written explanation, including of how their history is “a legitimate business interest of the property owners.” Prospective tenants will have the opportunity to respond and to correct information.

During a press conference ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, Powers said the measure was the culmination of more than a year’s worth of conversations with advocates, property owners and other stakeholders. He said it builds on previous laws that target housing discrimination, including one he sponsored that expanded the definition of income-based discrimination.

“Right now we have widespread discrimination in housing in the city, for a number of reasons,” Powers said. “Stable housing is the foundation of a stable life.”

Though advocates supported the initial version of the measure and expressed disappointment that it failed to pass, the Fair Chance for Housing Coalition, which is made up of the Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Defenders Services, the Fortune Society and others, last week called for passage of the revised bill.

“Housing discrimination should not be a part of a person’s sentence,” the coalition said in a statement. “We have to allow people access to stable housing so they can move on with their lives and contribute to their communities and the economy.”

Studies have found that lack of access to housing and other basic needs increases recidivism, a cycle that disproportionately affects people of color.

The bill was approved alongside a package of criminal justice reform bills, including a measure that prohibits most forms of solitary confinement in city jails. The background check law takes effect Jan. 1, 2025.