He had no choice, he said, after he’d be denied housing applications due to his three year stint in prison. Landlords labeled him as a felon who wasn’t on a straight path, he said, despite his work in a soup kitchen and interest in health services.
Under a bill that advanced in both houses of the state Legislature Thursday, New Jersey is one step closer to the historic move of banning the box — a question on housing applications that allows landlords to look into criminal history.
“You just look at the housing market in New Brunswick — you’ve got a Johnson & Johnson executive, a Rutgers student, a professor, and then a homeless guy who just got out of prison working at a warehouse not earning a living wage,” Herres said. “I’m praying that banning the box will, in essence, give some impartiality to housing.”
The measure, A1919, called the Fair Chance in Housing Act, aims to give people leaving prison a better chance at securing a place to live while reintegrating into society.
Advocates say it’s a major step toward ending housing discrimination and an often overlooked form of social justice. Housing, they say, is a major key to reducing recidivism, especially in a state where 30% of people return to prison within three years of their release.
“With the legalization of marijuana and people of color returning home, we think it’s going to be important we provide them with every opportunity to be successful, and the nexus of that success comes from housing,” said James Williams, director of racial justice policy at the Fair Share Housing Center.
The bill passed both houses of the Legislature Thursday, with a vote of 24-8 in the state Senate and 49-16 in the Assembly. It now heads to Gov. Phil Murphy, who is expected to sign the bill.
Advocates say New Jersey would become the first state with a statewide law limiting landlords’ ability to consider the criminal history of tenants.
Under the bill, landlords can only ask about criminal record in housing applications if they’re a registered sex offender, or if they were convicted for making meth in federally-assisted housing. Otherwise, a landlord can’t look into an applicant’s criminal history until after making a conditional offer.
Herres, who lives in low-income housing in Edison, founded SHILO, a nonprofit advocacy group working with Middlesex County’s homeless community. He said he would have gotten it off the ground ealier If he hadn’t been shunned from housing for so long.
“This would’ve helped me because I wouldn’t have gone through chronic homelessness and gotten petty theft and trespassing charges,” Herres said. “I would’ve had a headquarters to go to school, start a nonprofit, a home to go from employment.”
He sees this is the first step to housing equality across New Jersey, and hopes it will open up the floodgates for other states to create similar policy.
“Homeless people who get out of prison, we want to expedite their barriers, so it’ll be easier to overcome and you get a better chance of social mobility,” he said. “Stable housing gives a so much better chance.”
The landlord can then choose to withdraw their offer, but must explain the reversal, according to the bill, which urges landlords 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 or other tenants.
“This is not a free pass for people with criminal records to get housing. The housing provider still has the opportunity to look at that. But now they can show their entire self — support letters, community engagement, degrees, rehabilitative steps, and now the state identifies this person is able to re-enter into society,” Williams said.
If the tenants feels like they were discriminated against, they can file a complaint the Attorney General’s office. If found that the landlord committed wrongdoing, they would have to help that tenant find housing.
Williams called it a “very intersectional bill” that will attack several societal wrongs, primarily helping communities of colors. And the creation of the bill will allow for more data to be collected on housing equity to continue improving on the policy, he said.
Down the line, he said, the federal government should look at how housing can reduce recidivism and ensure people who were previously incarcerated can successfully reintegrate into society.