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Seattle Proposal a Step Forward for Housing Rights and Public Safety

Katherine Clemente,
Women's Rights Project
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March 16, 2011

Samantha*, a single mother from Seattle, is actively searching for housing for herself and her young daughter. She was once involved in crime connected to her drug addiction, but served her time in prison and successfully completed rehab. All she needs to be a productive citizen supporting her child is a decent place to live.

However, she faces one major hurdle: landlords keep rejecting her applications for tenancy because of her criminal record. All her hard work to put her life back on the right track has been for naught; landlords take one look at her record and reject her. She is not allowed a chance to show she can be a good tenant. She and her daughter will join the ranks of the homeless when her temporary housing with a re-entry service provider expires.

People like Samantha are the spark behind a Seattle Office of Civil Rights discussion at a community forum today. She and many others like her agree they should be punished for their past crimes. But when should that punishment end? Does it really help society for people who have committed offenses in the past to become homeless — no matter what the offense was, how long ago it occurred, or what efforts they have made to turn their lives around?

Thousands of people in Seattle have a criminal record. Is the community safer by keeping them homeless and unemployed? Evidence suggests otherwise. Studies show that offenders given a chance to overcome their pasts, through housing and employment opportunities, can be good tenants and are less likely to re-offend. For this reason, the Seattle Police Department spoke at a previous forum in support of a Seattle proposal to protect people with criminal records from discrimination.

Perpetuating the barriers for people with criminal records in housing and employment does not just diminish public safety, it is also grossly unfair. People of color are disproportionately affected because they are overrepresented among people with criminal records. Discriminatory housing policies also have a harsh impact on women — particularly low-income women. Women have been among the main victims of recent decades’ “war-on-drugs” policies, and their presence in prisons over the past two decades has increased at nearly double the rate of men. It’s even more of a struggle for women of color: African-American women were more than three times as likely as white women to be incarcerated, and Hispanic women 69 percent more likely.

This is why the ACLU of Washington and the National ACLU Women’s Rights Project support the proposal being discussed today. This proposal will protect the rights of people with criminal records by amending Seattle’s anti-discrimination laws to limit the ways in which a housing provider or employer can use prior conviction or arrest records when deciding such matters as renting property or hiring an employee. Housing providers would still be permitted to take into consideration crimes that interfere with the health, welfare, or safety of residents. But landlords would be required to distinguish between applicants who pose an unacceptable level of risk to other tenants or the property, and those who do not. The proposal would allow consideration of individual circumstances demonstrating that a person has put her criminal record behind her. It would help prevent people like Samantha and her daughter from becoming homeless.


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