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Fair Housing Bill Crucial Test of Whether Speaker Coughlin Stands For Racial Justice

Posted by Anthony Campisi on December 16th 2020

Frank Argote-Freyre Director, Latino Coalition of New Jersey

Rev. Dr. Charles Boyer Executive Director, Salvation and Social Justice

Carolyn Chang, Esq. Past President and Current Social Justice Committee Chair, Association of Black Women Lawyers of New Jersey

Rev. Eric Dobson Deputy Director, Fair Share Housing Center

Christian Estevez President, Latino Action Network

Reva Foster Chairperson, NJ Black Issues Convention

Ryan B. Haygood President and CEO, The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice

Brandon Mckoy President, New Jersey Policy Perspective

Richard Smith President, New Jersey State Conference, NAACP

An Open Letter to Speaker Craig Coughlin and Members of the General Assembly:

This week, the General Assembly is facing a crucial test over whether it can meet the promises Speaker Craig Coughlin and other leaders made in the wake of the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests to prioritize criminal justice reform and dismantle systemic racism.

The New Jersey Fair Chance in Housing Act is up for a vote before the Assembly Appropriations Committee Tuesday and a final floor vote on Thursday.

The bill, A1919, aims to remediate the impact that over-policing and over-incarceration has on Black and Brown communities by regulating landlords’ use of criminal background checks in the tenant application process. Black people represent more than 60 percent of the state’s prison population, despite being only 15 percent of the state’s broader population. And a staggering one in nine New Jersey Latinos can expect to be incarcerated - three times the rate for white non-Hispanic New Jerseyans.

The stigma of incarceration follows members of our community even as they seek to return from prison and rebuild their lives as productive members of society.

Too often, they face discrimination from landlords, who use criminal background checks against applicants as a tool to prevent Black and Brown families from moving into communities close to good schools and jobs.

There is no evidence that background checks make our communities safer or allow landlords to select better tenants.

Instead, the discrimination returning citizens face helps drive recidivism and further a racist criminal justice system that criminalizes being Black and Brown. There is a 25 percent increase in the chance of re-arrest every time a parolee changes address, according to a study in Georgia.

But the version voted out of the Assembly Housing Committee last week is completely unacceptable.

Bowing to the wishes of the New Jersey Apartment Association, legislators have gutted the bill, inserting loopholes that would give corporate landlords a license to continue discriminating.

The bill now lets landlords look at 10 years’ worth of prospective tenants’ backgrounds, setting many returning citizens up to fail.

The companion Senate bill, S250, has a three-year lookback provision, far more reasonable than the ten years in the Assembly version.

Even worse, the Assembly version eviscerates key enforcement provisions, making it effectively impossible for tenants, advocates or even the state to do anything if landlords break the law.

That’s why Rachel Wainer Apter, director of the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office Division on Civil Rights, has come out strongly against the amended version of the bill. She testified last week that that version of the bill is so weak that it will not actually be enforceable.

Another problem with the current version is that it can only be enforced by the attorney general suing a landlord to collect $100 - or less than many landlords charge tenants in application fees. Tenants do not have the ability to enforce the legislation themselves, and landlords do not have to tell them that they are being denied based on a criminal background check unless tenants know to follow up and ask within limited parameters.

We very much appreciate that main sponsor and committee chair Benjie Wimberly said last week that the bill would be amended coming out of committee. But ultimately the real test will be what comes to the floor this week.

This week we will learn whether Speaker Coughlin stands on the side of racial justice or with corporate landlords.

Tellingly, the Apartment Association and other corporate special interests were the only groups that testified in favor of this version of the bill in the Housing Committee hearing.

They want their members to have as much control as possible over the lives of their tenants - who are far more likely to be Black and Latino than New Jersey’s population as a whole - in arbitrary and discriminatory ways, and with no accountability. They realize that it’s not possible to defend landlords’ existing practices. So instead they have drafted a version of this bill that pretends to do something constructive, but has no teeth.

We call for our elected leaders to stand with the people against bad practices that unfairly penalize tenants. Our representatives should show that they care about their constituents, not the special interests seeking to perpetuate racist policies.