Pro/Con: Alameda County Housing Restrictions


On Dec. 20, Alameda County in Northern California passed a law banning landlords in both public and private housing from conducting criminal background checks on prospective tenants. 

This progressive law should serve as a model for jurisdictions looking for a solution to combat homelessness among formerly incarcerated people. Alameda County, the first county in the nation to pass such a law, deserves applause for this bold move.

A guiding principle of our judicial system is that once an individual has served time in jail, they have paid their debt to society. This is why the background check ban is so critical – it allows formerly incarcerated people a better shot at having a home and starting anew. 

According to The Guardian global news organization, approximately 8 million people in California have some form of criminal record, one in every five residents. Currently, the majority of California is working under laws that allow criminal background checks, which could deny housing to 1/5 of the state’s population. Nationally, 79% of formerly incarcerated people reported being denied housing due to their criminal records. 

The number of formerly incarcerated people who are now homeless is already high enough. According to a California Health Policy Strategies analysis from 2018, 70% of homeless people in California have a reported history of incarceration.

It is clear that a landlord’s ability to run criminal background checks on potential tenants significantly contributes to the current detrimental ties between homelessness and previous incarceration. 

According to the nonpartisan policy institute, the Center for American Progress, the combination of excessive use of criminal background checks and the stigma of having a record are major drivers of poverty and racial inequality in the United States

Alameda’s new law will directly combat that injustice by making it easier for formerly incarcerated people to find housing. That would provide significant support at a time in which virtually none exists for these individuals.

While it is easy to understand concerns for safety as it can relate to people imprisoned for violent crimes, those concerns do not justify discrimination against people who have already served time as the law requires. 

This is especially true when it comes to something as important as housing; research shows that having a roof over one’s head can help lead to a successful reentry into society.

According to a 2019 study done by the Harvard Institute of Politics Criminal Justice Policy Group, having a stable home and a secure place to stay in which former prisoners can orient themselves allows them to start the search for employment and rebuild their social networks. On the other hand, denying housing to those people will only result in higher rates of recidivism, according to the National Library of Medicine.

To deny former criminals the opportunity to reintegrate themselves into society because of a criminal background check for housing is clearly unjust. Banning the checks is a proactive and progressive step to help formerly incarcerated people find work and rebuild their lives. 


Alameda County became the first county in the United States to ban landlords from carrying out criminal background checks on possible tenants on Dec. 20. This will prohibit both private and public landlords from requiring applicants to disclose arrests or convictions.

In theory, this seems like a solid idea. In reality,  all it does is make it harder for landlords to properly assess the security of potential tenants, endangering the safety of their current ones.

There are many factors involved in evaluating a potential tenant, including credit score, rental history, income and criminal background. Background screenings allow landlords to get a more complete picture of a prospective tenant and can help them assess an applicant’s potential risk to other tenants and property. 

Recidivism, the tendency for a convicted criminal to re-offend,  is fairly common in California. According to the independent data organization World Population Review, the recidivism rate in California has averaged around 50% over the past 10 years. This number is higher than the national average of 44%, according to the National Institute of Justice, part of the U.S. Dept. of Justice. 

This could spell trouble for landlords who rent or sell their properties to offenders with extensive criminal backgrounds due to possible increased chances of damaged property or violence. With background checks gone, a landlord’s ability to guarantee the safety of other tenants is compromised. It eliminates an important factor for landlords when reviewing potential tenants. While the full effects of the ban will not be seen until later in the future, it does not seem to be headed toward a positive outcome.

Some may argue that former criminals should have a chance at redeeming themselves after serving their time in jail, but does that really apply to criminals who have committed horrifying acts such as rape or even murder? Some people do deserve second chances, but that should not apply to those who have committed violent crimes, since violent offenders have a higher tendency to reoffend. According to a study conducted by the United States Sentencing Commission, over an eight-year period from 2005 to 2013, violent offenders recidivated at a rate of 63.8%.

 Although landlords use background checks simply to maintain the safety of their property and tenants, it is also true that background checks do lead to homelessness amongst formerly incarcerated people. 

However, there are other ways to deal with potential housing problems for former inmates. Instead of just blindly allowing the formerly incarcerated back into society, we should alternatively build separate networks for these individuals to have shelter and have their basic needs met while also helping them gain education and job opportunities. 

Prohibiting the use of background checks denies landlords the ability to properly evaluate if a potential tenant is safe or not. Given the high recidivism rate in California and the high crime rate in Oakland – which is in  Alameda County – this move could pose risks to other tenants and surrounding communities.

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