Just Housing Ordinance takes effect

Commissioner's signature achievement prohibits housing discrimination

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

An ordinance introduced by 1st District Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, designed to protect people with prior convictions from housing discrimination is now in effect. Johnson's district includes much of Oak Park. 

As previously reported in April 2019, the ordinance is actually an amendment to the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance. 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," Marie Claire Tran-Leung, a staff attorney with the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law which helped draft the legislation, said at the time.

In a statement released last month, Johnson's office explained that the Just Housing Ordinance "will protect predominantly people of color and individuals with disabilities from being denied housing based solely on their conviction history."

The ordinance, which took effect on Dec. 31, 2019, originally passed the full Cook County Board of Commissioners last April. The board passed the specific implementation rules last November. The 11-member Cook County Human Rights Commission will be responsible for enforcing the ordinance.

The ordinance comes into effect after months of back-and-forth between landlords and a coalition of more than 110 organizations and individuals that supported the measure's passage.

Sarah Ware, who sits on the Board of Illinois Realtors, said last April 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 said "no one is keeping criminal records away from landlords and we are not creating a bifurcated process."

"We know that black and brown people are more likely to be arrested and have their records used against them when trying to secure housing, sentencing them to a lifetime of housing insecurity and potential homelessness," Johnson stated last December. "Our ordinance begins to reverse that racial and economic discrimination, giving folks a fair chance to access stable housing so they can begin to build better lives for themselves and their families."

According to the Sentencing Project, a nonpartisan research and advocacy organization based in Washington D.C., between 70 and 100 million Americans — or roughly one in three U.S. citizens — have some type of criminal record.

For minorities, the likelihood of having a criminal record is particularly stark. Black men are six times more likely, and Hispanic men 2.5 times more likely, to be incarcerated than white men, according to an analysis of Bureau of Justice data by the Sentencing Project.

"In Cook County alone, more than 13,000 people left the Illinois Department of Corrections in 2017 needing to find homes that allow them to hold jobs and re-establish ties with families, children and their communities," according to Johnson's statement. "But a national study that included Illinois found that four out of five survey respondents reported being denied or found ineligible for housing due to their own criminal record or that of a loved one."

Johnson said the ordinance "addresses age-old, systemic racial injustices that have plagued our county, city and state for far too long. But it's also a way to ensure safe and stable communities, which is something everyone in Cook County desperately wants."

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com

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