Back in 2016, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released a memo stating that criminal background checks should only be used by landlords with extreme caution, and that applicants with criminal histories should be considered on a case by case basis. This was issued in response to statistics showing that persons of color are disproportionately exposed to the criminal justice system across the nation.
In recent months, various Illinois legislative groups have taken steps to formalize protection of ex-cons in the housing market. Two new laws, one at the state level and one at the county level, will take effect between now and the start of 2020. Today we will review both of them and what they're likely to mean for renters.
Amendment to the Illinois Human Rights Act (SB 1780)
At the end of May both Illinois houses approved SB1780, which among other things amends the Illinois Human Rights Act to protect individuals with arrest records, juvenile criminal records and expunged adult criminal records from discrimination during housing transactions. This is something that state legislators have been trying to push through for some years now in response to HUD's 2016 decision that criminal background checks unfairly affect minority home buyers and sellers. SB1780 was signed into law by Governor Pritzker late last month and will take effect January 1, 2020 and will be relevant throughout the entire state. It cannot be overridden with weaker protections in cities with home rule although cities may enforce stricter protections.
Cook County Just Housing Amendment
Also in May the Cook County Board passed the Just Housing Amendment. This prohibits landlords within Cook County from running criminal background checks until they have given a rental applicant a conditional approval. This is intended to counteract landlords who give tenants excuses based on something else in their history to mask the fact that they're really denying them based on their criminal history. The Just Housing Amendment takes effect towards the end of October although the board is still trying to figure out how to implement it. It will affect all rental transactions within Cook County including Chicago.
What this means for renters
- Expect to have to pay for two background checks starting in October. One will be for your credit, employment and rental history. The other will be for your criminal history.
- Renters should ask how the landlord is splitting up their background checks to accommodate for the new law. Most screening services only offer a package of all the data delivered at the same time.
- Expungements are going to get an even greater focus in advertisements and they will become more expensive as demand increases. If you've got a record you were thinking of clearing, do it as soon as you can.
- Vandalism may increase in apartment buildings. Cook County has defined a specific set of crimes that are considered "demonstrable risks" worthy of causing a rental application to be declined. At the current time this includes Felony drug activity, violent criminal activity and criminal sexual conduct. It does not, however, include arson or vandalism, two crimes which landlords currently watch for with vigor when looking at criminal background checks.
- You will have to wait longer in between applying and signing your lease. Allow extra time for the additional background check to occur. Allow extra time for landlords to learn how to read reports issued by new screening services, as many will have to switch to services that provide separate credit and criminal reports.
- If you stay clean for 5 years, you're golden. Cook County has set the statute of limitations on demonstrable risk crimes as those which occurred within the five years prior to your application date. So just like bankruptcies vanish from your credit history, your criminal record will also vanish within 5 years.
- County Court trial wait times will become longer. Applicants who are denied housing based on suspected criminal history discrimination can dispute the denial in court. The Just Housing Amendment is basically creating a new protected class across the county, but unlike many other protected classes, most members of this class all have prior experience with lawyers and courtrooms.
- You can still be denied housing for having a recent RAP sheet of serious crimes. However, for those with minor convictions (shoplifting, marijuana use, minor moving violations, trespassing) it will be easier to find housing.
- It will be easier for renters to learn which landlords do criminal checks and which ones do not. This information should definitely be shared by word of mouth between renters if not by more widespread means like an online database.
- Landlords who don't currently screen for criminal histories will probably start doing so, especially in light of some of the other forces in play at the moment in the fair housing arena.
- You probably will not suddenly be surrounded by neighbors with criminal histories in your apartment building. At least not moreso than you already are. The only difference is that they'll be able to have their names on the lease along with all the other people living in those apartments.
Next steps for renters
- Landlords are protesting heavily before the Cook County board to weaken the policies they will use to implement the Just Housing Amendment. Renters and those interested in strong protections should make their voice heard at the board as well to counteract this strong lobby. Contact your Board commissioner and let them know your thoughts. Better yet, attend a meeting and speak your part in person. The next meeting is September 26 at 118 North Clark Street.
- Those with cause for concern about their criminal history should make a point to try and expunge any major data.
- Renters with common names (e.g., John Smith) should also make a point to check how a criminal background check would come up if run in their name. Instructions on obtaining your criminal records in Illinois can be found at Illinois Legal Aid.
- With Cook County defining specific demonstrable risk crime categories there will be two separate classes of ex-cons in Chicago and neighboring cities. Some will have an easy time finding housing, others will still find it nearly impossible. It's up to you if you want to help bridge the gap.
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