NJ clamps down on apparent violations of fair housing law

COLLEEN O'DEA, SENIOR WRITER AND PROJECTS EDITOR | MARCH 29, 2022 

NJ Spotlight News

Advocates recently complained about a lack of enforcement of a new law designed to help those with criminal records to secure housing. Now, with the help of a little online sleuthing, New Jersey is beginning to crack down.

The New Jersey Division on Civil Rights announced Monday that it has sent cease-and-desist letters to seven landlords or housing managers over rental ads that appear to violate the three-month-old Fair Chance in Housing Act (FCHA) that makes it illegal to discriminate against a potential renter based on a criminal record.

The properties are in East Orange in Essex County, Jersey City and West New York in Hudson County, Lafayette in Sussex County, Phillipsburg in Warren County, South Amboy in Middlesex County and South Bound Brook in Somerset County.

A review of ads on such online housing platforms as Zillow, Trulia and HotPads by state investigators turned up language that would appear to violate the law, which prohibits even inquiring about a potential tenant’s criminal history on initial housing applications. Among the phrases allegedly found in ads were “No criminal or eviction history,” “No Prior Criminal Felony Convictions on your record” and “Background check. NO criminal records (No exception).”

“The FCHA is a critical tool in addressing our country’s ongoing legacy of housing discrimination and segregation,” said Rosemary DiSavino, the deputy director of the civil rights division. She said the division “is committed to using every tool in its arsenal, including public education and proactive investigations, to aggressively and meaningfully combat housing discrimination.”

Acting Attorney General Matt Platkin said the actions put landlords and property managers “on notice that our Division on Civil Rights is actively monitoring the housing market for violations of the Fair Chance in Housing Act. If you are violating the law, we will seek you out, and we will hold you accountable.”

Advocates had complained

Advocates applauded the state actions, which are the first announced in support of the new law. Two months ago, a number of advocates said that people with criminal records were still facing discrimination from landlords despite the law having taken effect at the beginning of the year. The law, which Gov. Phil Murphy signed last June, bans housing providers from considering an individual’s criminal history until after making an initial housing offer. But many landlords were still doing just that, the advocates said, and they urged the state to begin enforcing the law.

“The attorney general’s actions are constructive, if only to send a clear message of the intent to enforce the act,” said former Gov. Jim McGreevey, who heads New Jersey Reentry Corporation, which assists people after they leave prison.

“I understand the initial reluctance of landlords, but the people we work with are changing their lives, they’re on a pathway to healthy, responsible citizenship,” McGreevey added. “This legislation, and this enforcement of it, is critically important. It’s difficult, almost impossible — physically, emotionally, spiritually impossible — to sustain employment while living in a shelter.”

Adam Gordon, executive director of Fair Share Housing Center, said enforcement of the law will help blunt racial discrimination in housing, given the vast racial disparity in those who are involved in the criminal legal system.

“The Fair Chance in Housing Act purposely included a strong enforcement mechanism because we know that enforcement is critical to addressing housing discrimination in our state,” he said. “Enforcement makes this law a reality … Our hope is that with continued education and outreach this legislation can begin to transform access to housing in New Jersey.”

Alerting landlords to change in law

Advocates have said that some landlords may not be aware of the change in the law. The division has held some trainings and scheduled additional ones for April 12, May 11 and June 14. Information about the trainings and the law is available on the division’s website. The letters sent out by the division warn the housing providers that their advertisements likely violate the law, and that may result in financial penalties of up to $10,000 per violation. The division is continuing its investigations.

The law does not ban inquiring about a potential tenant’s record altogether. After making a conditional offer of housing, landlords can inquire about certain criminal convictions. They can then withdraw a housing offer to those convicted of such serious offenses as murder or arson, registered sex offenders and those released recently after completing a sentence on an indictable offense. There are many instances in which a person can never be denied housing, including for a charge that did not result in a conviction, for convictions that were expunged or for juvenile delinquency.

Those who believe they were discriminated against can file a complaint with the division online or by calling 973-648-2700.

A number of legal organizations, including Legal Services of New Jersey and Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, are also supporting the formerly incarcerated and others of modest means in tenancy matters. New Jersey Reentry Corporation has partnered with The Waterfront Project to provide its clients with housing counseling and assist them in matters related to the Fair Chance Housing Act.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-03-29 03:20:47 -0700