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Detroit "bans the box" on most rental applications

For Rent sign
Kurt Bauschardt
Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Most Detroit landlords will no longer be able do to criminal background checks on potential tenants until they’ve otherwise completed the rental application process.

City officials say the new Fair Chance Ordinance will help ex-offenders stay on the right path by offering them a better shot at secure housing when they return home. They say it’s needed in a city where about 1,000 people return from prison each year.

Karlos Harris says he’s found success running a digital marketing company after spending eleven years behind bars, but that post-prison success may not matter to many landlords.

“I employed last year about 34 individuals, a lot of returning citizens and veterans alike,” Harris said. “But as a returning citizen myself, one of the biggest problems I’ve had is with housing.”

The ordinance allows landlords to do criminal background checks after potential tenants meet all the other criteria to rent. And it gives them some discretion to deny people based on criminal history.

Landlords can rightfully deny people whose history includes “violent crimes, crimes resulting in lifetime registry on the sex offender list, arson, those types of things,” said Detroit City Council member Janee Ayers, who spearheaded the ordinance. It also allows landlords to deny people if they’ve committed a felony within the past ten years, or served prison time within the last five.

But ex-offenders have a right to challenge denials by providing evidence of rehabilitation. If they’re still denied, they can file a complaint with the Detroit Department of Civil Rights, Inclusion and Opportunity, which will investigate.

Mayor Mike Duggan supports the ordinance, which only applies to landlords with five or more rental units in the city. Ayers said it won’t take effect for another six months, and the city plans an education campaign for landlords in the interim.

“Many of the Detroiters I represent and speak to across the city have struggled with loved ones falling into the cycle of repeat incarceration because they have no support network when they come home,” said Ayers, whose father was in and out of prison for much of her life. “This issue is deeply personal to me, but it is also just common sense.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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