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A new proposal before the D.C. Council could lead to fines in the thousands of dollars for housing providers—based on the size of their properties—if owners inquire about applicants’ criminal histories.

On Tuesday, Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie introduced the “Fair Criminal Record Screening for Housing Act of 2016” which aims to help returning citizens and those accused of crimes successfully find accommodations without facing discrimination. McDuffie’s office says the bill mirrors the so-called “Ban the Box” law enacted a couple years ago that limits the conditions under which employers can legally ask about job applicants’ criminal records. Eleven of the Council’s 13 members co-sponsored the proposal.

“At the heart of this proposed legislation is the prohibition of a housing provider’s preemptive and unnecessary inquiry into personal and private information,” McDuffie said in a statement. “Finding and securing adequate housing is one of the most difficult challenges faced by formerly incarcerated people and homelessness within this population is prevalent. “

Specifically, the bill would in most circumstances bar owners from requiring housing applicants to disclose an arrest, prior and conviction-less criminal accusations, and criminal convictions until after a conditional  offer has been made. In other words, owners couldn’t throw out applicants for previous convictions before they’ve even had the chance to formally apply for housing. The proposal, moreover, charges the D.C. Office of Human Rights with enforcing its provisions. The agency could levy the following penalties on guilty owners:

  • Up to $1,000 for providers that “supply 3 to 10 rental units in the relevant housing accommodation”
  • Up to $2,500 for providers that “supply 11 to 19 rental units in the relevant housing accommodation”
  • Up to $5,000 for providers that “supply 20 or more rental units in the relevant housing accommodation” (Complainants would be entitled to half of whatever penalty were meted out.)

After an owner extends a conditional offer of housing, they “may only withdraw [it] or take adverse action against an applicant to achieve a substantial, legitimate, nondiscriminatory interest,” according to the bill. Such an interest would have to be based on the nature and severity of the criminal offense as well as the amount of time passed and any information related to “rehabilitation and good conduct” since it occurred.

Still, the legislation contains a series of carve-outs, including for small, owner-occupied housing and instances where it would conflict with existing federal and local law. If an applicant files an administrative complaint with OHR, they cannot take the provider to court based on an alleged violation of the act as well.

As it is with Ban-the-Box grievances, OHR would be required to maintain data on complaints stemming from the act, and submit it to the Council annually. The D.C. Auditor would also have to issue a report on the prevalence of housing discrimination based on criminal records and the effect of the act in 18 months.

You can read the full bill here.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery