New Jersey landlords can no longer ask people applying for apartments about their criminal history until after making a conditional offer.
The new rule is part of the Fair Chance in Housing Act, which went into effect Jan. 1.
But criminal justice advocates are still hearing complaints that former inmates are facing discrimination when looking for housing, and urged the state Attorney General's Office to enforce the law signed last June, during a virtual press conference Wednesday organized by New Jersey Together, a network of churches and community groups across New Jersey.
The coalition asked law enforcement to proactively scour property listings and file applications to make sure landlords aren't illegally denying the formerly incarcerated housing.
"It's a question that comes up every meeting ... people are looking for housing and being denied," said Edwin Ortiz, reentry program coordinator for the Youth Advocate Program, a social justice nonprofit.
Ortiz recounted his own struggles finding a place to live after leaving prison. He bounced between his mother's couch, his sister's couch and a motel. His mother was concerned she would be evicted by her housing authority if it found out he was living with her.
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"It was difficult for me to assimilate back to mainstream society," Ortiz said. "If it were not for the Reformed Church of Highland Park Affordable Housing Corporation, I would probably still be bouncing from couch to couch."
People leaving prison are almost 10 times more likely than the general population to become homeless, according to the nonpartisan research group Prison Policy Initiative.
The attorney general's Division on Civil Rights has not received any formal complaints, according to public information officer Leland Moore. The office has reached out to housing providers "who have required guidance to come into compliance" Moore said.
"The Division on Civil Rights is committed to enforcing the Fair Chance in Housing Act, which reflects the Murphy administration's commitment to taking action to dismantle systemic racial disparities that have been allowed to exist for too long in New Jersey," Moore said.
How the law works
Under the "ban the box" law, after landlords make a conditional offer, they can only consider:
first-degree convictions, or release from prison for the offense, within the past six years.
second- or third-degree convictions, or release from prison for that offense, within the past four years.
fourth-degree convictions, or release from prison for that offense, within the past year.
convictions for murder, aggravated sexual assault, kidnapping, arson, human trafficking, sexual assault or endangering the welfare of a child.
any conviction that requires lifetime registration as a sex offender.
With this information, landlords must weigh the nature and severity of the crime, the applicant's age when committing the crime, how recently the crime occurred, whether other tenants' safety is at risk if the applicant committed the crime again, whether the crime was connected to the specific property, and any information applicants provide in their favor, such as letters of recommendation.
If a landlord decides to withdraw the offer, they must give the applicant a "notice of withdrawal" that explains the reasons. The applicant can appeal the decision and present evidence that the criminal record was inaccurate, or ways the applicant has changed his or her life.
Landlords may never consider arrests or charges that didn't result in a criminal conviction; convictions that were expunged, pardoned or vacated; crimes committed as a juvenile; or sealed records.
In the application process, landlords are allowed to ask about two scenarios: Are you required to register with the state as a sex offender for life? And have you been convicted of producing meth on federal public housing grounds?
Promise into reality
"We need to turn this act's promise into reality," said Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Montclair synagogue Bnai Keshet. "We need to make sure that the end of discrimination that the Fair Chance in Housing Act promises for all returning citizens is, in fact, reality in our state."
The coalition shared a video of people who left prison and faced hurdles finding stable housing.
Tyleakea Price, 47, was released from Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in January 2017, after serving 20 years for armed robbery. She's currently staying in temporary housing through the Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS program and has a Section 8 voucher. The voucher requires that she find a place to live in 30 days. She has received five extensions, she said.
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"As recently as November of 2021, I had a landlord flat out tell me, 'I will not rent to you because you have a criminal record, and I do not want any criminals on my property,' " Price said. "It doesn't matter that I'm a productive member of society now."
Ron Pierce, now a fellow with the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, was paroled to his wife's double-wide trailer in Jackson after serving 30 years in prison for murder. His wife told the owner of the property where the home was located that he was coming home, and the owner asked her husband to provide a background check.
"They sent her a letter and told me I was to leave her house immediately," Pierce said. "Now, this was Christmas Eve. I was on parole and they were telling her I had to leave her house or they would start proceedings to evict her out of her own house."
The coalition also stressed the importance for landlords to cooperate and give former inmates a chance.
"I understand the things that make landlords concerned about renting to people," said Seth Kaper Dale, CEO of the Reformed Church of Highland Park Affordable Housing Corporation. "As a landlord who welcomes reentering citizens, we've had overall a wonderful experience. We sometimes wish we had more supports in terms of social services for people."
Martin Slon owns a few apartments with his wife, and said that in their experience, "credit checks, salary or even current employment are not that well correlated with talent quality."
"This law helps returning citizens get a fair chance at housing without getting automatically disqualified at the first hurdle," Slon said. "And at the same time, it seems to do this without removing landlords' ultimate ability to make an informed decision."
File a complaint
If you suspect that a landlord has violated the law, you can make a complaint to the attorney general's Division on Civil Rights by calling 833-653-2748, emailing FCHAinfo@njcivilrights.gov or visiting bias.njcivilrights.gov.
"They will launch an investigation, and that unit cannot be filled until they close that investigation and a remedy can be provided," said James Williams, director of racial justice policy at Fair Share Housing Center.
The Attorney General's Office is hosting webinar trainings to explain the Fair Chance in Housing Act on Feb. 8, March 10 and April 12.
Ashley Balcerzak is a reporter covering affordable housing and its intersection of how we live in New Jersey. For unlimited access to her work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Some NJ landlords deny housing to ex-inmates despite new law