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Criminal past not enough to reject Evanston housing application

People convicted of crimes will have an easier time renting an apartment in Evanston under a new policy recently approved by the Evanston City Council.

An amendment to Evanston’s Fair Housing Ordinance will prohibit landlords from rejecting applicants based on their criminal record unless the convicted crimes occurred within three years or the applicant is a registered sex offender applying for housing in a restricted area.

Landlords can still run applicant background checks but they must undergo a prequalification inquiry first. The prequalification process will explore the applicant’s income, rental history, credit score, number of pets and more, according to a report sent by Interim Director of Community Development Jessica Fix to City Council members.

During this step, the landlord can only consider specific criteria when denying an applicant due to their criminal record.

“ (A landlord can deny an applicant housing if) a criminal conviction … and the individualized assessment shows that denial based on the criminal conviction is necessary to protect against a demonstrable risk to personal safety and/or property of others affected by the transaction,” the amended ordinance reads. “Any person conducting such individualized assessment is prohibited from basing any adverse housing decision, in whole or in part, upon a conviction that occurred more than three years from the date of the decision.”

However, despite the new ordinance, landlords can still deny housing when covered by federal and state mandates.

Both city officials and activists agree that housing discrimination based on criminal record has been an issue in Evanston.

“I’ve had personal experience with residents that have been denied housing because of a criminal background,” Alderperson Devon Reid said during the Sept. 27 meeting when the policy was approved unanimously. “In one case, a resident who has been out of prison for years and years … was denied a rental unit because of a criminal background — for something they served their time for, had been (released from prison for) and had no interaction with law enforcement since.”

Local organizations, such as Connections for the Homeless and the Community Alliance for Better Government, support the amendment as well. Both groups attended city meetings and put out calls voicing their support for the policy change.

“As a homeless service provider in Evanston, we provide (some clients) our services because they don’t have access to housing because of a prior criminal record,” Matt Seeley, a community organizer for Connections for the Homeless, said at last month’s Human Services Committee meeting. “You implementing this will go a long way to preventing homelessness and directly reduce homelessness in Evanston.”

Last year, Evanston-based Connections for the Homeless served over 4,000 people with 923 of them being children. The program said they prevented 1,713 people from going homeless in 2021, a number three times higher than in 2020.

The amendment also includes protections against sexual harassment by making it illegal to deny an applicant due to their refusal to undergo sexual acts. This could help provide sexual assault survivors support in these situations.

These sexual harassment protections involve “any owner, manager, lessee or sublessee of real property, real estate broker, lender, financial institution, advertiser, real estate appraiser or agent to grant housing,” according to the revised ordinance.

Survivors of domestic violence have new protections as well, specifically with the city prohibiting discrimination upon any traceable repercussions the victim may have experienced stemming from retaliation.

The amendment comes after a similar proposal, known as the Just Housing Amendment, which was approved at the county level. Alderperson Claire Kelly, who worked on the amendment, said during the meeting that she wanted to have Evanston’s law reflect the county.

Corey Schmidt is a freelance reporter with Pioneer Press.

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