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'Fair chance' housing ordinance in Jackson would offer bar discrimination based on criminal history

Posted at 7:21 PM, Feb 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-11 19:21:21-05

JACKSON, Mich. — For people with criminal records, just finding a place to live can be a challenge. Now Jackson Mayor Derek Dobies has introduced an ordinance that would give people who have served their time a fair chance at safe housing.

“As a city that has nearly 1 in 3 people living [below the] federal poverty level and knowing that there’s discrimination against returning citizens, we’re trying to work to alleviate poverty here in the city through a housing first approach," said Dobies. "Part of that means ensuring housing stability, means making sure people first and foremost aren’t discriminated against in the securing of housing in the first place."

Councilmember Will Forgrave, who is backing the ordinance with Dobies, says it would greatly impact those who have just been released from prison.

“About 20 percent of people in Michigan have a criminal record and formerly incarcerated people, I think, are something like 10 times more likely to be homeless and it’s a vicious cycle," he said. "Housing is an impactful way to break that cycle.”

The ordinance would prohibit landlords from asking potential tenants about their conviction history during the initial screening process. It would postpone background checks until a conditional lease is offered. It would prevent landlords from denying applicants housing solely based on their criminal history, unless that record would adversely impact public safety, property or other tenants, and allow potential tenants to offer evidence of rehabilitation.

“I want to make it very clear. The law still allows for background checks," said Forgrave. "There are rumors going around that it is banning that. That’s not the case. Landlords and complex owners can still perform background checks.”

"But say in Michigan you can be charged for a misdemeanor for reckless driving or driving with a suspended license are just two examples," he added, "and this ordinance as it’s proposed basically says if that happened more than five years ago, you can’t be denied housing for that.”

Tony Gant was formerly incarcerated himself. He's the Jackson regional coordinator for Nation Outside, a grassroots organization for criminal justice reform, and is working with the city to get the ordinance passed. He wants landlords to see people as people first.

“There are instances where people are being denied housing on criminal convictions. That’s problematic," said Gant. “If we can get this through, I believe we can create a safer community and a lot of times people don’t see the connections. In order for people to be successful whether they’re released from jail or prison, they have to have a home. They have to have somewhere to live. They can’t even hold a job successfully without a place to live so if our interest in our community is to be safer for people to not re-offend, which is in the interest of the community, then we want to give them the opportunity to succeed and this is a path to successful people.”

Charles Drake, the president of the Jackson Area Landlord's Association says what the ordinance calls for is pretty consistent with how the group's members operate already.

“I did a quick poll of a lot of my members and I found all of them that I talked to at random have no problem have no problem with renting to someone with a criminal history. In fact, all of them including myself have rented to someone like that," Drake said.

The ordinance will be introduced to the City Council on Feb. 23 and could be passed as early as the first meeting in March.

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1:52 PM, Dec 16, 2020

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Joe Gebhardt