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Individuals with a criminal record in California often have difficulty finding housing to rent. The problem exists in part because California landlords often have more applicants than they have rental space available, and there is an economic incentive to discriminate against those with a felony or misdemeanor criminal record.
The incentive comes from the fact that landlords in California have a duty to protect current tenants from the criminal activity of another tenant. Many landlords minimize their risk of liability by screening out those applicants whom they view as “potential criminals,” so it often makes sense for a landlord to avoid the added liability and discriminate against someone with a criminal record.
There are federal and state laws preventing discrimination on the basis of various criteria. The two most significant laws, the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Federal Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), do not protect individuals from discrimination based on a criminal record. As such, applicants may be denied housing on the basis of their criminal record. In other words, California landlords are not liable if they reject an applicant solely because the applicant has a criminal record. Further, these applicants may also be precluded from participating in subsidized housing programs.
While there is no state or federal law that prohibits discrimination in housing based on a criminal record, a combination of California's laws can keep the door to quality housing open for those with criminal records.
The first category of laws that help those with an old criminal record are California’s credit reporting laws. Most landlords rely on consumer reporting agencies to provide background information. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) is a federal law that sets national standards for the reporting of credit history by a “consumer reporting agency.” The FCRA prevents the disclosure of most negative history that is older than seven years. However, the FCRA was amended to allow for any criminal history, regardless of age, to be disclosed.
California's Investigative Consumer Reporting Agencies Act (Civil Code §1786) and the California Consumer Credit Reporting Agency Act (Civil Code §1785) provide added protection when it comes to criminal records by making it unlawful for a consumer reporting agency to disclose criminal history that is more than seven years old.
Consumer reporting agencies can only report criminal history that involves convictions; they cannot report information about arrests. This makes clearing your record for housing purposes simple.
The second category of laws that helps those with criminal records are California’s record clearing laws. California allows people to get most convictions off of their record if their sentence did not involve state prison. The process, commonly called expungement, allows you to petition the court to have the finding of guilt set aside and the case dismissed. If successful, all court records will be updated to show no finding of guilt and case dismissal. This process gives an individual the legal right to answer as if he or she has never had a conviction for almost all purposes, including when asked for purposes of obtaining housing.
If your sentence did involve prison time, you may still be able to overcome housing discrimination by obtaining a certificate of rehabilitation from the court. You are eligible to petition the court to be deemed rehabilitated between 7 to 10 years after your release from prison. The certificate is an official statement by the court deeming the petitioner to be a law abiding and honest person.
If you have a criminal record, do not let scrutinizing and prejudicial landlords stigmatize you. If you have experienced housing discrimination based on your criminal past, contact an attorney who specializes in record clearing. An attorney who specializes in record clearing can help you obtain better housing opportunities.
By Olga Sattarova
Olga Sattarova holds a juris doctor in law from the University of Utah's SJ Quinney College of Law. Mathew K. Higbee contributed to this article.