Fair Chance and Housing First Policies
On April 19, 2022, Mayor Tom Butt agendized City Council item W3, which sought to amend Richmond’s Fair Chance Housing Ordinance. While the mayor has been a vocal opponent of most tenant protections, this item reflects an interest in improving housing access.
Earlier this year, the mayor partnered with the Rotary Club to pay a year of rent for a handful of vetted unhoused residents. He’s having a hard time convincing landlords to participate, even with one year of paid rent. In an effort to ease some of the barriers faced by people seeking housing, Mayor Butt then sought to apply and expand some language from a California statute that requires state funded or administered housing providers to incorporate the “Housing First” model into their policies.
The “Housing First” framework is an evidence-based approach that prioritizes housing for unhoused residents before seeking to stabilize their lives in other ways (such as improving health, reducing harmful behavior or increasing income). Mayor Butt cited specific language from Senate Bill 1380, which he hopes to apply in Richmond to prevent applicants from being rejected “on the basis of poor credit or financial history, poor or lack of rental history, criminal convictions unrelated to tenancy, or behaviors that indicate a lack of ‘housing readiness.’”
Despite Mayor Butt’s good intentions, what he aims to accomplish does not belong in the City of Richmond's Fair Chance Housing ordinance. Also known as “Ban the Box,” Fair Chance legislation deals specifically with addressing criminal background checks in the housing application and review process. After a campaign led by the Safe Return Project, the Fair Chance Housing Ordinance passed in Richmond in 2016. The Mayor seeks to address credit, employment and rental history for all housing applicants, not just those with a conviction history.
While our city can look into removing other barriers to rental housing for all applicants, this item also provides an opportunity for us to address existing implementation gaps and strengthen the Fair Chance Housing Ordinance. There are things that could be done to actually expand fair chance housing protections, such as removing criminal background checks (the current ordinance delays when background checks can occur during the application process), or expanding the ordinance beyond public housing applications to other housing providers.
Passage of the Fair Chance Housing Ordinance required annual reports sharing data of access and assessing ordinance implementation, but this hasn’t occurred. City Manager Curl reported that her office tried working with both the Richmond Rent Program and Housing Authority to deploy the ordinance, but Fair Chance is outside the scope of both of those agencies. Responsibility was delegated to the Housing Division within the Community Development Department, but that department is, as many city departments, significantly understaffed and thus stretched thin. Our city has also gone without a Housing Manager for some time, but has intentions to hire for that role in May.
Hopefully, when that occurs, the Fair Chance Housing Ordinance can be reprioritized, along with two other shelved housing items mentioned by Councilmember Willis: an anti-discrimnation ordinance and application fee ordinance, both of which were drafted by staff but never voted on.
Councilmember Jimenez made a two-part motion:
- Direct City Manager’s office to report on implementation of current Fair Chance Housing ordinance and results, and work with Safe Return Project and its coalition to improve and modify the current ordinance
- Direct city staff to draft a new ordinance to remove barriers for unhoused residents to access housing- prohibiting illegal, over-zealous tenant screening applications and promote housing and real property availability and access to everyone
Ultimately, Councilmember Jiménez’s motion on Mayor Butt’s item was passed with unanimous support from the council.