The Cook County Board of Commissioners recently approved a measure that makes it easier for people with arrest records to secure housing in the county. The board passed the “Just Housing” amendment as a new clause in the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance during a meeting on April 25. The board’s two Republican commissioners — Pete Silvestri (9th) and Sean Morrison (17th) — were the only votes against the measure. 

“This amendment will provide greater family stability for more than 3,300 people who return to communities in my district each year from prison,” said Commissioner Brandon Johnson (1st), the amendment’s chief sponsor whose district includes most of Austin, where he lives. The measure is Johnson’s first major legislative achievement since he took office in December. 

The amendment provides a range of additional protections for people with arrest records who may be seeking housing. 

Marie Claire Tran-Leung, a staff attorney with the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, which helped draft the legislation, said that the amendment requires landlords and real estate agencies “to determine whether a person has met financial and other qualifications before considering that person’s criminal history;” and prohibits blanket bans on criminal records, as well as housing discrimination on the basis of “arrest records, juvenile records and records that have been expunged and sealed.” 

Tran-Leung added that the amendment allows housing providers to deny housing on the basis of a conviction, but only after an individualized assessment of that person’s conviction history that takes into account factors such as “the nature and severity of the underlying offense, the time that has passed since it happened and what the person has done to improve themselves upon leaving the system.” 

Supporters of the amendment said that it aligns with a 2016 guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which notes that landlords could be liable if they routinely exclude with criminal records from housing opportunities.

“A housing provider violates the Fair Housing Act (FHA) when the provider’s policy or practice has an unjustified discriminatory effect, even when the provider had no intent to discriminate,” HUD explains.  

According to a statement released by Johnson’s office on April 8, the amendment would also require landlords to notify prospective tenants “if a housing denial is based on a criminal record by providing the applicant with their findings and a written reason for the denial of housing.” 

The amendment will also “enable people with arrests and certain conviction history to file complaints against housing providers to redress the wrongs they have suffered from discriminatory conduct,” stated Barbara Barreno-Paschall, an attorney with the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. 

Barreno-Paschall added that housing providers “may face penalties such as fines and damages for failing to conduct individualized assessments of qualified applicants who have arrests and certain conviction records before making a determination on their housing application.” 

Those changes could smooth the transition back into society for people like Willette Benford. 

“I was released from prison under a new domestic violence law,” Benfrod said. “It took Illinois 24 years to correct the wrong. I was the first woman in Illinois to be released immediately under a new domestic violence law.” 

Benford said that she is currently living in a homeless shelter and is completing a program that will prepare her for employment, but once she lands a job, “my search for housing will be quite different [from the average person’s]” due to her background. 

Maria Moon, a college student who was incarcerated for 13 years, worked to dispel some of the assumptions that often circulate about people with criminal records. 

“When I got out of prison, I was homeless,” she said. “With the money I did have, I bought a vehicle and I had to keep all my things inside of it. I had two children who were in grammar school. This isn’t just about the people who have records, it’s about our children also. They are paying these collateral consequences.” 

Moon said that she currently has a place to live and that she’s the longest tenant in her building. 

“I will be punished over and over again by stipulations about my past and by laws that hinder me from going forward,” Benford said during an April 24 Cook County Human Rights Commission hearing on the amendment. 

King Harris, a senior fellow at the Metropolitan Planning Council and board chairman of the Illinois Housing Development Authority, said that each year, around 28,000 people leave Illinois prisons. 

“They have served their sentences, but they have an extremely difficult time finding housing and maybe that’s one of the reasons — along with not having access to proper healthcare and employment — that 40 percent of those people will return to prison in three years. We must cut down the barriers that prevent many, many people from finding housing.” 

Some industry organizations, such as the National Consumer Reporting Association and Illinois Realtors, have argued that the amendment could disrupt industry standards already in place, leading to unintended consequences and possible harm to tenants and housing providers. 

Sarah Ware, a small landlord and who sits on the board of Illinois Realtors, said that the amendment would “lead to confusion and inconsistent treatment of applicants,” and that the measure would create a “bifurcated screening process” that would involve landlords screening for the usual financial criteria, such as credit history and employment, before screening for criminal history. Ware said the “two-step procedure” could mean higher housing application costs that would be passed on to prospective tenants. 

Tran-Leung, however, said that “no one is keeping criminal records away from landlords and we are not creating a bifurcated process.” 

Terry Clemens, the executive director of the National Consumer Reporting Association, said that while his organization supports the spirit of the amendment, he was concerned about the short time it would give housing providers to implement the changes and the possibility that it would create additional regulatory obstacles for landlords. 

“The concern is tying this into the existing federal laws,” he said. “These were very recently updated. HUD put a lot of work into this in 2016. The Fair Credit Reporting Act was first introduced in 1970; you’ve got two federal agencies between the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that oversee the law. Putting another set of regulations and another regulatory agency into the mix is not good for anyone.” 

Commissioner Larry Suffredin (13th) said that the commission “is experienced in balancing federal, state and local issues and protecting the rights of the citizens of Cook County,” adding that the Human Rights Commission will work with housing providers during the rule-making process that will govern the amendment’s enforcement. 

Suffredin also said that, based on input from industry insiders like Clemens, the county extended the amount of time that housing providers will have to prepare themselves to get into compliance — from 90 days to six months. 

Johnson said that his amendment still allows landlords discretion to deny prospective tenants who are sex offenders. In addition, municipalities are able to opt out of the amendment. 

“It is possible some [municipalities] will try it,” Johnson said. “But what city wants to be known as the place where people are discriminated against?” 

Commissioner Dennis Deer (2nd), whose district encompasses many parts of the West Side, pointed out that the amendment’s passage comes as advocates and residents are celebrating the 11th anniversary of Congressman Danny K. Davis’s Second Chance Act, which supports local and state governments in their efforts to reduce recidivism.

“I was one of the architects of that [legislation],” Deer said. “This month we’re celebrating its 11th anniversary, so it seems very meaningful that we are looking to pass this housing initiative, because there’s no room for double jeopardy. People should not be required to pay over and over and over again for a crime they committed when they were 19. That’s insane.”