Oakland bans criminal background checks in tenant screening

In a seminal ordinance, the City has made it more difficult for owners and property managers to identify rental risks.


When it comes to tenant screening, we have always admonished landlords to conduct thorough work on the front end and not to use online tools as a crutch. In an earlier post, we said that the law, technology, and a culture of amnesty all come together to cloak certain blemishes in a prospective tenant's background.

A movement long in the making

AB-1008, dubbed the "Fair Chance Hiring Bill," makes it unlawful for an employer to include on an employment application any question that seeks disclosure of the applicant's criminal history and also prohibits employers from asking about any convictions until the employer makes a conditional offer of employment. It was with little surprise that these types of fresh start, "Ban the Box" laws have trickled down to the rental housing industry.

In unanimously passing a pioneering “fair chance housing” ordinance, Oakland City Council has barred landlords from conducting criminal background checks. In February, Berkeley will likely vote to approve a similar measure.

The disfavor against denying housing to ex-offenders is certainly not unprecedented. San Francisco and Richmond have their own bans, but those ordinances are narrowly focused. San Francisco’s protections are limited to affordable housing, while in Richmond, its ordinance applies to publicly subsidized affordable housing and nonprofit housing.

Oakland is an exclusive club, however, in banning criminal background checks for most rental units, but there are exceptions to every rule. Accessory dwelling units, single family homes, duplexes and triplexes are exempt.

The goal of the public policy behind this, of course, is to put a dent in recidivism and homelessness. John Jones III, campaign director for Alameda County Fair Chance to Housing Coalition, says ex-offenders are headed to one place where they can count on three hots and a cot.

“There is only one place in America that any one of us is guaranteed a roof over our heads and that is in prison … All of us seek to have safe shelter. That should not be a matter of privilege.”

~ John Jones III, quoted here  in the San Francisco Chronicle

Our takes

In many venues, we observed that California has an ever-expanding pool of protected classes and very recently noted that recipients of subsidized housing vouchers have joined the ranks. It is always true that when turning down a rental application, less communication is more.

Read our blogs on fair housing laws...

Owners and property managers are under no obligation to accept tenants who fall under certain categories of protected classes. More suitable candidates can be found, but please be careful not to deny a tenancy because of preconceived notions or blanket bans. It is especially hazardous to use exclusionary language in rental housing advertising because there is an indeible digital footprint. These discriminatory ads become a flaming beacon for enterprising litigation attorneys who find them like heat-seeking missiles.

Individual assessments are always in order.