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The Cook County Board of Commissioners recently approved a measure that makes it easier for people with arrest records to secure housing in the county. The board passed the “Just Housing” amendment as a new clause in the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance during a meeting on April 25. The board’s two Republican commissioners — Pete Silvestri (9th) and Sean Morrison (17th) — were the only votes against the measure. 

“This amendment will provide greater family stability for more than 3,300 people who return to communities in my district each year from prison,” said Commissioner Brandon Johnson (1st), the amendment’s chief sponsor, whose district includes most of Proviso Township. The measure is Johnson’s first major legislative achievement since he took office in December.

The amendment provides a range of additional protections for people with arrest records who may be seeking housing.

Marie Claire Tran-Leung, a staff attorney with the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, which helped draft the legislation, said the amendment requires landlords and real estate agencies “to determine whether a person has met financial and other qualifications before considering that person’s criminal history,” and prohibits blanket bans on criminal records, as well as housing discrimination on the basis of “arrest records, juvenile records and records that have been expunged and sealed.”

Tran-Leung added that the amendment allows housing providers to deny housing on the basis of a conviction, but only after an individualized assessment of that person’s conviction history that takes into account factors such as “the nature and severity of the underlying offense, the time that has passed since it happened and what the person has done to improve themselves upon leaving the system.”

According to a statement released by Johnson’s office on April 8, the amendment would also require landlords to notify prospective tenants “if a housing denial is based on a criminal record by providing the applicant with their findings and a written reason for the denial of housing.”

The amendment will also “enable people with arrests and certain conviction history to file complaints against housing providers to redress the wrongs they have suffered from discriminatory conduct,” stated Barbara Barreno-Paschall, an attorney with the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.

Barreno-Paschall added that housing providers “may face penalties such as fines and damages for failing to conduct individualized assessments of qualified applicants who have arrests and certain conviction records before making a determination on their housing application.”

Those changes could smooth the transition back into society for people like Maria Moon, a college student who was incarcerated for 13 years, worked to dispel some of the assumptions that often circulate about people with criminal records.

“When I got out of prison, I was homeless,” she said. “With the money I did have, I bought a vehicle and I had to keep all my things inside of it. I had two children who were in grammar school. This isn’t just about the people who have records; it’s about our children also. They are paying these collateral consequences.”

Moon said she currently has a place to live and that she’s the longest tenant in her building.

King Harris, a senior fellow at the Metropolitan Planning Council and board chairman of the Illinois Housing Development Authority, said that each year, around 28,000 people leave Illinois prisons.

The National Consumer Reporting Association and Illinois Realtors, have argued that the amendment could disrupt industry standards already in place, leading to unintended consequences and possible harm to tenants and housing providers.

Terry Clemens, executive director of the National Consumer Reporting Association, said that while his organization supports the spirit of the amendment, he was concerned about the short time it would give housing providers to implement the changes and the possibility that it would create additional regulatory obstacles for landlords.

Commissioner Larry Suffredin (13th) said the commission “is experienced in balancing federal, state and local issues and protecting the rights of the citizens of Cook County,” adding that the Human Rights Commission will work with housing providers during the rule-making process that will govern the amendment’s enforcement.

Suffredin also said that, based on input from industry insiders like Clemens, the county extended the amount of time that housing providers will have to prepare themselves to get into compliance — from 90 days to six months.

Johnson said his amendment still allows landlords discretion to deny prospective tenants who are sex offenders. In addition, municipalities are able to opt out of the amendment.

“It is possible some [municipalities] will try it,” Johnson said. “But what city wants to be known as the place where people are discriminated against?”