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New Yorkers With Criminal Record Struggle for Approval to Rent Homes

by Ashleigh Dye

It is estimated that in New York City over 750,000 residents have a criminal record. Yet, many policies and housing laws exclude people with past criminal convictions from being able to rent apartments or homes. Legislation known as “Fair Chance” laws could help change that.

Christina Johnson is just one of the many who have been affected by New York’s discriminatory housing laws. In September 2020, she was finally ready to get her own apartment for her and her son. Johnson was elated. She had spent years saving for a place that she and her son could call home, a place where she would have her own room for the first time. She continuously checked the website for updates.

Almost a week after she first paid the money and toured the apartment, her status on the housing website changed from “certified” to “pending intelligibility.” She reached out to the office and discovered they had sent her money back.

She was confused but was told to call their phone line. They informed her that her criminal record appeared during the final background check and because of this she and her son would be ineligible for housing.

“The call was what broke me,” Johnson, 25, said.

The apartment she was applying for was through the New York City Housing Authority (“NYCHA”), which is the largest public housing agency in the U.S. NYCHA has a policy that bans people with criminal records from being eligible to rent. Depending on the crime, bans begin with three years for misdemeanor convictions. Johnson found out that she would not be eligible until 2027.

Johnson went to prison when she was 17 years old and served three years on a felony conviction. She was released in 2016 and was hired as a case manager at the Fortune Society, a nonprofit organization that helps those who are currently incarcerated or have just been released.

Johnson says that she has had steady employment since her release, but her criminal record always interferes with her ability to rent an apartment.

While three-quarters of a million residents of New York City have a criminal history, New York does not have housing laws to protect these people from discriminatory housing policies. Other cities in the U.S. such as Detroit, Berkeley, Oakland, and the states of New Jersey and Oregon—to name a few—do have “Fair Chance” laws. Putting these laws into place in New York City could not only help reduce the homeless population but also lower the rate of recidivism.

Many of these New Yorkers are Black and Latino. These marginalized people have faced racial discrimination in their search for housing. This has resulted in New York becoming the third-most-segregated city for Blacks and as high as second for Latinos.

Some lawmakers are seeking a solution to this problem. Fair Chance legislation was sponsored in 2020 by council member Stephen Levin that would prevent housing discrimination based on an applicant’s criminal history. The law still allows landlords to protect crime victims who may be their tenants along with a section that will give them the right to check the Sex Offender Registry. However, they must give applicants notice ahead of time if they are going to take such actions.

As for Christina Johnson, the Fortune Society advocated for her and her son and assisted her with an appeal in NYCHA’s denial. In 2021, Johnson and her son moved into the same apartment complex she had dreamed of before.

NYCHA reviewed their policies and made changes. They reduced the number of ineligible felonies from 397 to 116 and misdemeanors from 117 to 12.

Johnson now says she is focused on helping others who face the situation she did. “All of us have had several chances in life in different ways. It just so happens getting a second chance for housing is the hardest,” said Johnson. 


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