By: Erika Pablo, Civil Rights Strategic Advisor, City of Seattle
After a decade-long effort, Seattle passed the Fair Chance Housing ordinance. The Seattle Office for Civil Rights (SOCR) enforces this ordinance to help prevent housing providers from denying applicants and evicting tenants based on their criminal history. It also prohibits the use of advertising language that automatically or categorically excludes people with arrest records, conviction records, or criminal history.
Community groups led by the Jubilee Women’s Center (formerly Sojourner Place), the Village of Hope, the Black Prisoner’s Caucus and most recently, the FARE Coalition called for the City to address these barriers facing renters.
Racial equity is central to the issue of fair chance housing. People of color, specifically black and indigenous communities, face disproportionate inequities because of mass incarceration and racial bias in housing. Racial disparities in the criminal justice system have deeply and negatively harmed communities of color. Due to an interplay of racial bias, sentencing policies, and systemic racism, people of color make up 37% of the U.S. population but 67% of the prison population. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics data, “African American men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men and Latino men are more than twice as likely to be incarcerated as white men.” These disparities hold true in King County as well: African Americans are 6.8% of the overall population, but account for 36.3% of the jail population; Native Americans are 1%, but account for 2.4% of the jail population.
When developing legislation, SOCR was aware of unintended consequences of ban the box policies. Leading with a racial equity lens and centering communities most impacted by racism helped to avoid these potential consequences. It was critical to nurture and uplift community organizing and community-led policy. For example, when the Seattle City Council received the legislation, it included a two-year lookback, allowing housing providers to screen for criminal history within the past two years. This would inherently impact the most vulnerable residents—those charged with low level crimes, and those experiencing homelessness and cycling in and out of municipal court and county jails. The FARE Coalition and many formerly incarcerated community members organized and advocated at city council hearings to encourage the Council to go all the way and remove the condition. In the end, thanks to powerful community organizing, the Council passed legislation with no-look back period. The FARE Coalition’s efforts are now focused on implementing Fair Chance Housing throughout King County.
Additionally, we were careful about messaging and language. Originally the legislation was called “Second Chance” housing, but a “second chance” would not account for institutionalized racism and the criminal legal system’s historical and ongoing harm to communities of color. Instead, we used “Fair Chance Housing,” centering racial equity in our various messaging platforms.
Lastly, we emphasized that legislation is only one step to address systemic harm and remind legislators that there is more work to be done. Seattle remains in a state of emergency on homelessness, with unaffordable rents and continued displacement for communities of color. It is likely Fair Chance Housing may only impact residents with access to livable wage income or residents that have rental subsidies. However, the legislation sparked a larger discussion about our City’s response to reentry, community safety, and anti-displacement strategies. When working with individuals living with criminal history, we asked “what does successful reentry look like for you?” They often list living wage jobs, safe and stable housing, connection to community, mental health support, and other important necessities often taken for granted. What isn’t listed? Recidivism. Even with this support in place, someone may still encounter police, be charged with a crime, or incarcerated.
This raises a larger question: Are we allowing communities to define safety for themselves? When making legislation and policies, whose safety is being valued and at what cost? It is important as policy makers and gatekeepers that we build authentic relationships with community and nurture community-led solutions, especially from those who have been most impacted by systemic racism.
 http://www.sentencingproject.org/criminal-justice-facts/  https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045216/53033,53  http://www.kingcounty.gov/~/media/courts/detention/documents/KC_DAR_Monthly_Breakouts_05_2017.ashx?la=enhttps://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045216/53033,53  http://www.kingcounty.gov/~/media/courts/detention/documents/KC_DAR_Monthly_Breakouts_05_2017.ashx?la=en  Agan, Amanda Y. and Starr, Sonja B., Ban the Box, Criminal Records, and Statistical Discrimination: A Field Experiment (June 14, 2016). U of Michigan Law & Econ Research Paper No. 16-012.