Cook County Board passes ‘just housing’ amendment

April 30, 2019
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Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle discusses the "just housing" amendment approved by the board April 25. Commissioner Brandon Johnson (to the left of Preckwinkle) was the chief sponsor of the measure. | Stephanie Gadlin

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson applauded the passing of the Just Housing Amendment, which protects renters from discrimination based on past arrest records.

The amendment to the county’s Human Relations Ordinance will take effect in November, six months from now.

“I am proud to be the chief sponsor of an ordinance with the sole purpose of ending discrimination against families and returning citizens who have been plagued and haunted by the vestiges of Jim Crow,” Johnson said in a statement.

“In the 1st District alone, nearly 80 percent of the women who return from the penal system are mothers. And one of the greatest challenges that our families have to securing the type of dignity that they deserve is an opportunity to secure housing,” said Johnson, an Austin resident who was elected to the board last year.

The new language, which the Cook County Board passed April 25 by a 15-to-2 vote, drew praise from other commissioners.

“Housing is a human right. We know that when residents have access to stable housing they are more likely to be successful in life – even more so for vulnerable populations,” Commissioner Scott Britton said in a statement.

Commissioner Kevin Morrison, a co-sponsor, said in a statement, “Safe and affordable housing is a human right. This passage of the Just Housing Amendment is a clear signal that Cook County believes in fair housing for all and will support those with past convictions who are seeking rehabilitation.”

Troy O’Quin, a veteran and community leader who now lives and works in Cook County, was joined by his wife and two daughters as he testified about his difficulties accessing housing due to his past record.

“It takes only a second to break the law but a lifetime to live with the consequences. One second, one crime, one serious lack of judgment … in America this can be a life sentence,” O’Quin said before the Cook County board approved the measure.

Two landlords testified against the measure, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. They asked the board to give housing organizations and landlords a chance to offer more public comments.

The Sun-Times reported that before the revised ordinance takes effect later this year, commissioners will meet with landlords and other stakeholders about its impact and to ensure the changes comply with guidelines from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The amendment was supported by a coalition of over 100 groups, including the Westside Health Authority and the Safer Foundation.

The change will ensure that housing providers and housing authorities do not consider certain aspects of a person’s criminal record — such as arrests, juvenile records, and sealed and expunged records — when making housing determinations, according to Housing Action Illinois.

For applicants with a conviction on their record, housing providers will need to conduct an individualized assessment and consider factors such as the nature of the offense and how long it’s been since the offense occurred.

One in three Americans has an arrest record before they turn 23, and jurisdictions across the country have passed similar fair housing measures as an integral component of criminal justice reform, according to Housing Action Illinois.

Blanket housing bans against people with records disproportionately impacts black and brown families, and people with disabilities, and are often an avenue for race- and disability-based discrimination. Research also shows that when individuals with records have stable homes, recidivism rates are reduced.

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