In Brief

N.J. takes first step in implementing historic housing discrimination law

By: - September 9, 2021 7:00 am

Supporters of the law say it’s a big step forward for social justice, as securing housing is a key to reducing recidivism. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

New Jersey officials are reviewing proposed rules for a new law banning landlords from considering prospective tenants’ criminal histories, one intended to lessen racial discrimination in housing.

It’s the first step in implementing what activists have called the strongest housing discrimination law in the country. It’s part of the “ban the box” movement,” a reference to job and housing applications that ask about applicants’ criminal histories.

Officially known as the Fair Chance in Housing Act, supporters say the law, signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in June, will give people with criminal histories a better chance at safe housing and aims to dismantle racial injustices in housing opportunities. It goes into effect Jan. 1, 2022.

“Everyone in New Jersey should have a fair chance to find safe and affordable housing,” said Acting Attorney General Bruck. “But for too long, having a criminal record has made it too hard for too many people to find a place to live, and that burden has fallen disproportionately on people of color.”

On Tuesday, the Division on Civil Rights released a 16 page notice outlining new rules, clarifying the Fair Chance in Housing Act, and explaining how to file complaints.

Black and brown people are arrested and jailed at disproportionately high rates in New Jersey, allowing housing providers to legally “reject applicants with any criminal history, including minor violations,” the document says.

Supporters of the law say it’s a big step forward for social justice, as securing housing is a key to reducing recidivism. In New Jersey, roughly a third of ex-offenders return to prison within three years of release, according to the Fair Share Housing Center.

Landlords and property owners have argued the law goes too far, since they cannot run a criminal background check on a potential tenant until after a conditional offer is made.

Violating the law comes with fines of up to $10,000.

Landlords can choose to withdraw their offer based on criminal history — indictable offenses of the first degree within six years, crimes in the second or third degree within the last four years, or fourth degree offenses within a year — but must explain the reversal in a written letter after weighing the nature of the crime and time served.

And even then, the landlords will not be allowed to deny housing solely based on someone having a criminal record, other than the most serious offenses like murder and sexual assault. Disorderly persons offenses and charges that don’t result in conviction can’t be used to deny housing, the rules state.

The law requires “landlords consider applicants for tenancy based on their own merits, rather than relying on assumptions based on their criminal history,” said Rosemary DiSavino, deputy director of the Division on Civil Rights. She added that the rules set “forth clear and fair guidelines around … applicants’ criminal history throughout the housing application process, rather than disproportionately rejecting people of color based on disparities in our criminal justice system.”

Bruck will be hosting a virtual community roundtable on the Fair Chance in Housing Act Sept. 22 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Interested residents should register in advance, and can submit questions.

Members of the public can also submit their comments on the rules to the Division of Civil Rights until Nov. 6 at regula[email protected]

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.

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