Oakland, California, Bans Landlords From Running Criminal Background Checks On Potential Renters

Authorities hope it will help reduce the city's homelessness crisis.

a sign advertising a space for rent
Elvert Barnes / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0 Cropped and Resized)

Authorities hope it will help reduce the city's homelessness crisis.

Oakland, California, has banned landlords from checking potential tenants for criminal offenses, becoming the first municipality in the state to do so, CNN reports. Authorities hope the new rules will make a dent in the city’s homelessness crisis.

By a unanimous vote, Oakland’s city council passed the new rules, which would fine any landlord who requires a tenant to disclose their criminal history, or who performs a criminal background check on a potential tenant, up to $1,000 per occurrence.

California is in the midst of a homelessness crisis, with the number of homeless having jumped 16.4 percent in 2019. Oakland, like other cities with notoriously high housing prices, is not immune.

What’s more, by some estimates, as many as one in five Californians has a criminal conviction, as The San Jose Mercury News reported in 2019.

Advocates for the homeless in Oakland say that at least part of the problem has to do with landlords denying tenancy to people with criminal convictions. In passing the Fair Housing Ordinance, homeless advocates hope that not only will homelessness in the city be reduced, but that it will help people with criminal convictions avoid re-offending and winding up back in prison.

One person who is likely to be affected by this ordinance is John Jones III. Even though he has a steady job and makes decent money as an aviation mechanic, he’s found himself locked out of housing opportunities because he’s done time.

“When you have a safe place to call home… you’re in a stronger position to get a job, to go to school, to get help that you need. We’ve all made mistakes,” he added. “Who wants to be permanently punished for a mistake they have made?” he said.

aerial view of oakland
  Dcoetzee / Wikimedia Commons (GPL)

Another person likely to be affected by the ordinance, albeit indirectly, is city council member Larry Reid. His son is currently behind bars and expected to be released in a few months. Thanks to the new legislation, his criminal conviction won’t be a barrier to him finding a place to live.

“This piece of legislation is going to make a huge difference in his life as he begins to do the things that he ought to be doing, to improve the quality of his life and for my two granddaughters,” Reid said.

There are exceptions, however. For example, landlords will still be able to check if tenants are on sex offender registries. Similarly, the bill doesn’t apply to single-family homes and government-funded housing.