New York progressives continue their long march to erode private control of resources. The Fair Chance for Housing Act, a key measure now winding through the city council, would bar criminal background checks by landlords; this follows a 2019 law that forbids “source of income” discrimination in housing, as well as a set of new laws that expanded rent regulation. Opponents of the new bill contend that criminal background checks protect tenants from living among murderers, thieves, arsonists, and other dangerous new neighbors. Bill proponents turn the narrative on its head, insisting that giving the formerly incarcerated access to housing will ensure security for all. Brooklyn Heights councilmember Lincoln Restler, for example, explains that the “#1 solution to public safety is housing.” Shekar Krishnan, a councilman representing Jackson Heights in Queens, cites New York City’s “housing crisis,” which “we aren’t going to solve by making it more difficult for people to find a home. . . . People in homes equal safer communities.”
It’s a common theme in progressive politics to explain every policy as a function of another policy. Climate change is a matter of racial equity; school attendance is a question of the sleep gap caused by poor transit infrastructure; obesity is the result of a lack of grocery stores that leads to food insecurity; and murder signifies a failure to invest in community-based mental-health solutions. This rhetorical strategy exemplifies the Left’s general approach to make all struggles one struggle. It compels, however clumsily, commitment to a broader program of radical change: if you care about safety, you must care about housing for all; if you don’t care about housing for all, then you must not care about safety.
Overcriminalization and mass incarceration, say progressive critics, have created a “prison to shelter” pipeline. Much like the often-cited “school to prison” pipeline, the “prison to shelter” pipeline suggests a social condition that dooms certain people to failure. Public Advocate Jumaane Williams notes that the Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited discrimination based on national origin, race, religion, sex, and disability but that the act continues to permit the “discriminatory practice” of refusing to rent to people with criminal records. This loophole, says Williams, “directly impacts Black and Brown New Yorkers who are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system.”
According to decriminalization advocates, the number of people affected by the use of criminal background checks in New York City is stupendously high. The New York Times reports that “formerly incarcerated people are nearly 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public.” Councilmember Nantasha Williams says that 750,000 city residents have criminal records; multiplied by the number of people in their households, it soon becomes clear that “millions are impacted.”
But New York does not have “millions” of homeless people. A mid-December census by the Department of Housing Services counted about 20,000 single adults living in city shelters; by best estimates, no more than 4,000 people are living on the streets. Even if all these people were previously incarcerated, that would mean that of the 750,000 New Yorkers with criminal convictions, about 97 percent have a place to call home. Clearly, having a criminal conviction is not the insurmountable bar to housing that the advocates contend.
Supporters of the bill offer two distinct scenarios to describe the problem. On the one hand, they point to cases like that of Kandra Clark, who, despite having a full-time job, could not find an apartment because of her “fraud-related” criminal conviction. On the other, they note the overlap between the criminal and homeless populations to suggest that people get trapped in a cycle between prison and the shelter that is worsened by societal fear and exclusionary laws. “Homelessness and incarceration appear to increase the risk of each other,” the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development declares.
In reality, few gainfully employed people with good credit scores are having trouble finding apartments because of an inconvenient armed robbery conviction on their record. And while homelessness and incarceration probably do “increase the risk of each other,” the failure to maintain a fixed address and criminality also tend to reflect deeper personal ills, perhaps driven by mental illness, drug addiction, and a generally antisocial outlook. Moreover, New York City is a tough place to get an apartment for anyone, which is why the city has been in a “housing emergency” since World War II. It’s not just felons who struggle to find a place.
Passage of the Fair Chance for Housing Act would likely open a pathway to housing for very few—and its backers understand this. It’s a largely unspoken premise of left politics in New York City that private ownership of property presents a major obstacle to achieving equity. The progressives in charge of New York—including a supermajority of the council, the comptroller, and the public advocate, though counterbalanced somewhat by the mayor—seek to curb the rights of property owners by gradually eroding their authority to set rents, choose tenants, and maintain their buildings. Their ultimate goal is the establishment of a broad social housing regime. With such spoils in the balance, leaving a few tenants to the tender mercies of violent ex-cons is a cheap price to pay.