Berkeley could ban landlords from conducting criminal background checks. Advocates say everyone deserves a “fair chance” at housing, while companies like Premium Properties have tried to raise the alarm. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

“Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”

For most prospective tenants in Berkeley, the question is a routine one, a quick “No” box to check on a housing application, in between the sections on employment history and personal references. But for residents who’ve been incarcerated, they know their “Yes” answer likely guarantees their application is destined for the recycling bin.

For years, the “Ban the Box” movement has pushed to prohibit employers from conducting criminal background checks on job candidates. Now several elected officials and a coalition of activists want Berkeley to become a rare city that prohibits the practice during the rental process too.

“This is trying to correct the structural barriers for people to reintegrate into society, and also to give people the path to lead a better life. These people have paid their dues to society,” said Mayor Jesse Arreguín, speaking at a community meeting on Saturday at the David Brower Center. (Berkeleyside Publisher Lance Knobel co-moderated the panel discussion with John Jones III of Just Cities.)

However, some local property owners and other critics said the proposal would strip landlords of the right to protect themselves and their other tenants, censoring information they need to make responsible decisions about their private properties. At Saturday’s meeting, Berkeley Property Owners Association (BPOA) Executive Director Krista Gulbransen said many landlords feel that Berkeley already has stringent regulations that put them in vulnerable positions.

The regional effort to implement these ordinances has been led by the Alameda County Fair Chance Housing Coalition and Just Cities, which organized Saturday’s two-hour meeting along with the mayor’s office.

Those advocates say people who’ve served their time can face a host of hurdles when they try to find housing upon their release: steep rents, parole rules that require them to return to the area where they were convicted, and background checks that can even prevent them from moving back in with family members. Studies have suggested that stable housing reduces the chance of recidivism, and the latest Berkeley point-in-time count identified incarceration as the primary cause of homelessness for 10% of Berkeley’s unhoused population.

“This is not just a social justice issue, it’s a homelessness prevention strategy for our city,” Arreguín said.

Panelists discuss the “fair chance” proposal. From left: Megan Abell, Krista Gulbransen, Anita Wills, co-moderators Lance Knobel and John Jones III, Jesse Arreguín, Katie Dixon, Margaretta Lin. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

City Council members Cheryl Davila, Kate Harrison and Rigel Robinson are co-sponsoring the “Fair Chance” ordinance with the mayor, but it won’t come before the full council until early 2020.

The details of the ordinance could change by then, but as it’s currently written it would ban landlords from either advertising that they don’t accept tenants with past convictions, or from conducting criminal background checks on applicants. Tenants could sue property owners over violations — though there has been little enforcement of a similar Berkeley law banning discrimination of Section 8 tenants.

Small properties (up to three units, including ADUs) where the landlord lives on site would be exempt from the ordinance. So would houses where the owner is on temporary leave, and units where master tenants rent out rooms. Some of these exemptions came out of discussions between landlord groups and the city and advocates of the Berkeley proposal. Landlords would also still be able to consult the state’s registry of sex offenders, and Section 8 owners would have to comply with federal rules denying tenancy to lifetime registered sex offenders or people who’ve been caught making meth in public housing.

Berkeley would be the first city in California to pass such a sweeping law. Both Portland and Seattle have similar laws on the books, though Seattle’s is caught up in litigation. San Francisco and Richmond have also banned background checks, but only in affordable or subsidized housing.

“These people have paid their dues to society.” — Mayor Jesse Arreguín

At the Saturday meeting, formerly incarcerated people and the mother of a man currently in prison talked about their own experiences with survival after release.

“Despite being a licensed aircraft mechanic, I was both unemployed and unsheltered for 18 months,” Jones said.

Jones is the director of community and political engagement at Just Cities, and was incarcerated between 2008 and 2011 for a violent crime. When he got out, he first had to deal with getting a job, collecting personal references, and raising enough money before he could even apply for an apartment, he said.

“I believe that I am accountable for my actions. We have both a civic duty and a moral obligation to give back to our community,” said Jones, a single father whose young son was at the meeting. “For people who do the right thing, it’s very important that we don’t erect barriers. For those who choose not to, we already have a system in place.”

Jones said the perception that a violent criminal would be let loose in a quiet complex with no supervision is false.

“It’s not as if you come home and fall off the radar. You can violate by being 10 minutes late to meet your parole officer,” he said. Additionally, many people have inflated criminal records because they took plea deals to avoid longer sentences, couldn’t afford bail, or were falsely imprisoned, he said. But he said he, like anyone, is scared of getting mugged or assaulted, and understands why people are concerned.

The 2019 point-in-time count identified incarceration as the primary cause of homeless for 10% of Berkeley’s unhoused residents. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Just Cities says the criminal background checks property owners depend on can be faulty. Studies have shown state and federal databases are incomplete, often including records of arrests without noting that charges were later dropped or disproven.

Gulbransen said many members of her organization are aware of those imperfections but rely on the wealth of data that is available to make informed decisions and stay safe.

“In this business I have to ask myself, what if this person doesn’t pay rent? What if they harm another member of my tenant community? There are some that are unfortunately going to squander that second chance,” Gulbransen said. “In a city like Berkeley, where it’s highly regulated, I do have a legal remedy — it’s eviction. But it’s an extraordinarily ineffective remedy to an immediate problem. Who stands with me in the community to help repair the problem” if a tenant endangers their neighbors, she asked.

“What if they harm another member of my tenant community?” — Krista Gulbransen

In Seattle and Portland, where “fair chance” laws have passed, landlords were given even less say in selecting tenants, however. In those cities, the ordinances were paired with a requirement to offer housing to the first people who apply.

After the meeting, Gulbransen said she herself has knowingly housed a convicted felon in one of her properties. But she said she wouldn’t make the same choice in Berkeley. She added that most landlords she knows distinguish between types of crimes. They’re much less likely to care about an old marijuana conviction than they are a history of violence or sexual assault.

Jim Smith, a former Berkeley landlord who attended the meeting, cautioned that the proposal could backfire.

“The people who are going to suffer the most are black potential tenants who have no criminal history,” said Smith, a BPOA board member who used to run the Berkeley Black Property Owners Association. Without records on hand, landlords could rely on racist stereotypes, denying tenants they suspect of being criminals and further threatening Berkeley’s declining black population, Smith said.

Some landlords are already organizing against the ordinance.

Tenants of Premium Properties, which manages numerous apartment buildings and houses in Berkeley, received an email from the company in early November, warning them that “a convicted violent criminal may be moving into your building.”

The company asked tenants to attend Saturday’s meeting to express their concern.

Tenant Charis Baz said the email did prompt her to attend the meeting — but not for the reason the company thought it would.

“I was really offended by the tone. It seemed like fear-mongering,” she told Berkeleyside. “It felt really out of touch with the values we have as a community. It’s misrepresenting the level and type of risk to renters, in order to get us on their side, essentially.” Premium Properties did not respond to a request for comment.

Baz said she’d be happy to see proposal pass, when it comes to the council in the new year.

“Allowing people to be housed and rent legally is just a tiny, tiny, tiny step toward a future where these people do reenter society,” she said.

Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...