Oakland bans criminal background checks on potential tenants

 Rows of homes in Oakland.
(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)
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The Oakland City Council on Tuesday approved an ordinance that would prohibit landlords from asking about a potential tenant’s criminal history or rejecting them out of hand for having a record.

Council members voted unanimously to pass the Fair Chance Access to Housing Ordinance, which supporters say will help ensure ex-cons can find secure housing instead of ending up on the streets. The Berkeley City Council is expected to vote on a similar measure in February and supporters plan to start work shortly on similar measures in Emeryville and Alameda County.

Oakland’s ordinance is the strictest of its kind in the state, covering both public and private housing.


A measure in neighboring San Francisco covers only affordable housing while Richmond’s covers publicly subsidized affordable housing and nonprofit housing.

“This ordinance is about making sure returning community members have equal opportunities they deserve to successfully reintegrate into our community, and this begins with a roof over your head,” said Oakland council member Nikki Fortunato Bas, who cosponsored the measure with council member Dan Kalb and Vice Mayor Larry Reid.

The measure prohibits landlords from rejecting a potential tenant because of his or her prior conviction or from requiring disclosure of a criminal history in background checks. Landlords will have six months to adapt to the law. After that, they could face fines of up to $1,000 for each violation.

Background checks are a standard part of applying for an apartment, and applicants with a criminal record often are denied. That can make it next to impossible for those who have been incarcerated to find housing, especially in the Bay Area’s tight housing market.

Lee “Taqwaa” Bonner of the group Legal Services for Prisoners with Children said the ordinance could change his life. He spent three decades behind bars for second-degree murder and was released from prison three years ago but at times had to live in his car for lack of a place to stay.

“I was born and raised in Oakland,” Bonner said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “I am employed in Oakland. I own and drive a vehicle in Oakland. However, I cannot live in Oakland based solely on my criminal record, which happened 30 years ago.“


The Oakland ordinance does have some exemptions for single-family homes, duplexes, triplexes and in-law units if the owner is living on the property. Likewise, tenants seeking to add or replace a roommate would be exempt.

Also exempt are owners of government-subsidized affordable housing, including federally subsidized Section 8 units, who are required to exclude certain renters based on their criminal records. The federal government requires landlords to reject potential tenants who have been convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine or are on the state’s lifetime sex offender registry.