County Board limits landlords’ inquiries into tenants’ criminal histories

on Apr28
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2019-04-25 16:43:19

The Cook County Board on Thursday passed limits on the practice of asking potential tenants about their criminal histories, despite pleas to hold off until landlords and property owners had a chance to air their concerns.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle hailed the measure as balancing “the need for inclusion with the need for safety,” but one landlord shared war stories about renting to ex-offenders who stole from her other tenants and nearly set up “a meth lab in my house.”

Dubbed the “Just Housing” ordinance, the measure is actually an amendment to the county’s housing ordinance. It is designed to end housing discrimination against people trying to turn their lives around. The amendment adds language that prohibits potential landlords or property owners from asking about, considering or requiring the disclosure of “covered criminal history,” meaning arrest records, charges, juvenile records and conviction histories will be off limits to landlords.

The criminal history won’t be considered for an application for housing or continued occupancy of a property until the potential tenant has been determined qualified for the property.

It also sets up a process for property owners who seek to deny housing to a tenant with a criminal history to give notice to the potential or current tenant and allow them to dispute the accuracy and relevance of the conviction.

Cherie Travis was one of two landlords who spoke against the measure before the Thursday vote and asked the commissioners to slow down and to allow housing organizations and landlords an opportunity to offer more public comment.

Travis is a former executive director of the city’s Commission on Animal Care and Control.

She said she rented to three ex-offenders who all had drug offenses, and one “up and left, another almost created a meth lab in my house … and the third person used her rent money for heroin and was stealing mail from other tenants and packages in the building.

“I’m concerned about the fact that you’re asking us to take the entire risk and the entire burden of it,” Travis said. “I’d really like to see the county put some skin in the game … I think this is an interesting piece of legislation, but I’d really like for it to be held for a month so we all have the opportunity to have more of a discussion about it and see if there’s not some better way to draft it.”

Cherie Travis in 2008. (File Photo by John H. White/Chicago Sun-Times)

Cherie Travis in 2008. (File Photo by John H. White/Chicago Sun-Times)

All the Democrats on the Board voted in favor of the measure, while the only two Republican commissioners — Sean Morrison of Palos Park and Peter Silvestri of Elmwood Park — voted against.

Commissioner Brandon Johnson, D-Chicago, who was the chief sponsor of the measure, said landlords were included in the discussions and said the new language is “really about protecting and restoring families.”

“Their voices were heard, it was a very thorough process not just with the coalition members and my colleagues, the fact that they were actually at the Board meeting today and yesterday speaks to our thorough focus,” Johnson said.

Then-Chicago mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle speaks in Greater Harvest Baptist Church while campaigning in March. File Photo. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

The revised ordinance will go into effect six months from now so commissioners can meet with landlords and other stakeholders about its impact and to make sure the changes comply with guidelines from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The six month delay in the ordinance going into effect came in part from discussions at a hearing on the ordinance Wednesday.

Preckwinkle congratulated Johnson on getting it passed.

“We’ve taken a step forward as a community toward fairness, inclusion and healing,” Preckwinkle said. “The ordinance we’ve just passed is in line with federal fair housing laws because it balances the need for inclusion with the need for safety … This is the latest step in our mission to bring equity to Cook County.”

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