In a step toward racial equity and ending housing discrimination, Gov. Phil Murphy on Friday signed the Fair Chance in Housing Act, barring landlords in New Jersey from asking about criminal history on housing applications.
At the state’s first commemoration of Juneteenth as an official holiday, Murphy signed the historic “ban the box” bill (A1919), which advocates say is the most sweeping form of the law in the nation.
“With today’s action, Governor Murphy has put New Jersey at the forefront of criminal justice reform by helping to dismantle the impacts of a criminal justice system plagued by systemic racism,” said Eric Dobson, deputy director of Fair Share Housing Center. “Every person in our state deserves a home.”
Under the law, landlords will only be able to ask about criminal records on applications if the prospective tenants were convicted of a sex offense or were convicted for making meth in federally-assisted housing. Otherwise, landlords can’t look into criminal history until after making a conditional offer.
Dobson said the new law “sits at the intersection of housing, civil rights, and criminal justice reform” and will make reintegration into society easier by removing barriers that can block housing for people who served time in prison.
The barrier to housing contributes to recidivism — especially in a state where 30% of people return to prison within three years of their release — as well as homelessness and relapsing, advocates who fought for the law said. Incarceration disproportionately affects Black and brown communities in the United States, with Black people incarcerated at 12 times the rate of white people in New Jersey.
“Eliminating barriers to housing for those with criminal records is a critical step toward righting the wrongs that have unfairly impacted Black and brown communities for far too long,” said Marc Morial, President and CEO of the National Urban League. “Housing discrimination has long-lasting impacts on individuals and communities, and today’s action will help break the cycle. I thank Governor Murphy for signing this historic legislation.”
Landlords can run a criminal background check on a potential tenant once the conditional offer is made, and would be able to consider 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, according to the new legislation.
The law encourages landlords who find criminal offenses to weigh the nature of the crime, the length of time passed, and how the offense would affect the safety of the landlord’s property and other tenants. If the landlord decides to withdraw their offer, they must explain their reversal.
Tenants who feel discriminated against can file a complaint with the Attorney General’s office, and landlords found to have committed wrongdoing would have to help the tenant find housing.
“Many times, it is before an applicant even has a chance to explain themselves or discuss the application that they have already been denied housing,” said state Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, D-Passaic, primary sponsor of the bill, adding that New Jersey is “fighting generational poverty, homelessness, and hopelessness through social justice reform measures such as this one.”
Newark is the only city in the state with a similar ordinance. Seattle, New York City, and Washington D.C. have similar statutes.