Felons to face less scrutiny when seeking housing in Detroit

Candice Williams
The Detroit News
City Councilwoman Janeé Ayers addresses the media regarding an ordinance that will require most rental housing in Detroit to follow a "ban the box" policy to ensure fair housing for Detroit's felons.

Detroit — Felons looking to rent housing in the city of Detroit will face one less barrier following the city’s new policy that eliminates the question of an applicant’s criminal background on an initial rental application.

City Councilwoman Janeé Ayers and Mayor Mike Duggan discussed Wednesday the city’s Fair Chance ordinance that Detroit City Council unanimously approved this week.

“One of the things we’ve noticed with the task force for returning citizens is you have 200 people every month that return home from being incarcerated,” Ayers said.

“You put that on top of people who are already here, and that number is exponential. You’re talking about people who don’t have somewhere to live simply because of a mistake that they made, however much time has passed.”

Under the ordinance, landlords with more than five units of property will not be permitted to ask about a potential renter’s criminal background until the applicant is deemed qualified to rent under other phases of the application process, such as employment and income.

Mayor Mike Duggan, center, addresses the media as City Councilwoman Janee Ayers, left, and Justin Johnson, right, political director of SEIU Local 1 listen.

If the applicant has a criminal record, he or she can be denied housing if he or she committed crimes related to the safety of other people or property, arson or crimes resulting in lifetime registry on the sex offenders list. Applicants can also be denied for felonies committed within the past 10 years or resulting in imprisonment within the past five years.

Ayers, who introduced the ordinance, says it will allow those with criminal records a fair opportunity to obtain housing, help them to reintegrate into society and reduce the likelihood they will reoffend.

“We’re not saying you don’t do a background check at any point,” Duggan said. “We say you don’t screen people out before you even get to know them.”

Duggan said the city has made progress when it comes to hiring returning felons, but more work needed to be done to address housing.

“We have returning citizens driving our busses, boarding up our houses, working in the water and sewerage department shutting off the leaking pipes,” he said. “We have a number of companies in the city. … I think what has happened is that there is a realization that people who have made a mistake still have enormous value. Still have much they can contribute.”

Karlos Harris, 46, a Detroit business owner, said he’s had numerous rental applications denied over the years because of his criminal past. The Ann Arbor resident spent 11 years total in prison for breaking-and-entering offenses.

Karlos Harris, 46, a Detroit business owner, discusses the challenges felons face in getting housing.

Harris now owns a digital marketing company, Koded Icons, and is the chief operating officer for Detroit School for Digital Technology, which his wife founded.

“Once you decide you’re going to get your life together and you start paying your taxes and you’re being a responsible adult then those doors seem to be forever closed to you,” he said. “It’s difficult. Gainful employment is only a portion of it. Then you’re talking about housing to keep your kids… you can’t find that has a felon.”

The ordinance will go into effect in six months, Ayers said, giving the city time to educate the community and for the Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department to contact landlords.

Not everyone is in favor of the ordinance.

Stephen Rosman, the owner of 35 rental properties in the city of Detroit, said he doesn’t want the additional regulation.

“You work hard, you buy a rental, you fix it up and you want to rent it to good people,” he said. “You don’t want to rent it to criminals. You don’t want to rent it to people who hurt people. You don’t want to do it. Here you have the government telling you who you can rent to?”

Rosman said he handles rental applications on a case-by-case basis.

“I take everybody as an individual,” he said. “I don’t do broad brushes. If I look at someone, and I see they’ve got a good job, and I see they haven’t done anything wrong in 10 or 15 years, and they did something stupid as a kid, and we’ve all been there, and I don’t see any incidents of breaking the law since then, I’ll give them a pass, and I’ll rent it to them. Even if they’ve been inside.”


Twitter: @CWilliams_DN