Rob Carter, a director of operations for former Gov. Jim McGreevey’s large network of re-entry programs, is not the person he used to be. But it made no difference when he was searching for a place to live, in the middle of a pandemic. Landlords still refused to rent to him.
“I’m 14 years clean and I got turned down from eight apartment complexes in less than a week because of my record,” he said, of old drug-related charges. “My credit’s fine, I’ve never gotten evicted before. Never.”
The work that goes into getting ex-offenders to this point – improving credit scores, securing jobs, saving up for a security deposit and a few months’ rent – is “Herculean,” McGreevey says. “Then to be refused because of a past record presents an almost impossible circumstance.”
We have a law aimed at preventing such discrimination in hiring, known as “Ban the Box.” Now we need the same for housing. About half a million people have fallen behind on rent due to COVID, some of whom have a criminal history. And hundreds are released every month from prisons. Where are they supposed to go? Do we want them all to be homeless?
“If at every step we create a burden that individuals can’t overcome, we keep re-punishing them,” McGreevey argues. “To me, that’s fundamentally wrong.”
Only after you’ve gotten far enough to receive an offer to rent should landlords be allowed to consider a criminal record, advocates say – and only under certain circumstances, such as when the crime was recent.
But the answer isn’t the toothless bill in the Assembly, preferred by landlords. The penalty is just $100, and enforcement is left to the beleaguered Department of Community Affairs. It’s also too draconian. If you have a third or fourth-degree offense, including many drug convictions, you can be kept out of the apartment for five years after you get out of prison.
The standards for renting an apartment shouldn’t be as stringent as what’s required for security clearance for a government job. Even for a misdemeanor like shoplifting, landlords can refuse you for a year. And for more serious crimes, they can keep you out for as much as 10 years, with some ex-offenders excluded altogether.
Sen. Troy Singleton is right: Discrimination cases must carry heftier fines and be placed under Division on Civil Rights in the Attorney General’s Office. And under his bill, a criminal history can be considered only if the offense is not expungable and an applicant got out of prison less than three years ago.
David Brogan, who represents landlords, objects that “a person who commits murder is treated the same as person who gets a DUI,” an understandable reaction. But McGreevey makes a strong case against basing the degree of protection against housing discrimination on the felony status of the crime, which is not actually linked to the likelihood of reoffending.
The most violent prisoners are actually the least likely to end up back behind bars: Murder has a 1 percent recidivism rate, he notes, and for those over age 60, the likelihood of reoffending nearly vanishes. These people have to live somewhere. So why make it more onerous for them to become law-abiding citizens?
It’s a good question, one we all must grapple with. Forcing people to live in horrible conditions isn’t likely to make anyone safer.