Don't own any rental properties in Oakland and get out if you can

The latest progressive initiative to “destigmatize” criminal behavior in Oakland, California should be of concern to everyone, but particularly landlords who rent out residential property. The City Council there has unanimously passed a measure banning the ability of landlords to perform criminal background checks on applicants. This measure certainly sounds like one that’s full of good intentions (if you listen to the activists supporting it) but ignores many serious realities. (CBS San Francisco)

Following a unanimous vote by the city council Tuesday night, Oakland has now become the first city in California to ban criminal background checks on potential renters.

“Indescribable emotions and feelings,” said John Jones III of Oakland, who got out of prison in 2012 and struggled to find a place to live in Oakland despite his well-paying job as an aviation mechanic.

Jones said he’s among the many who left prison only to end up on the streets, contributing to Oakland’s homeless crisis. That’s why he’s been lobbying hard for the Oakland City Council to pass the Fair Chance Housing Ordinance, which says landlords will no longer be allowed to turn down potential renters because of criminal convictions.

This is yet another progressive “reform” measure taking place in Oakland under the leadership of Mayor Libby Schaaf. You may remember her as the mayor who came to national attention after she decided to engage in some gang signaling and warn all of the illegal aliens in her city of an upcoming ICE raid.

As so often happens in these types of reforms, proponents and their willing media enablers find the most sympathetic example possible of the “problem” being addressed and flaunt them as the poster child for reform. In this case, they selected community activist John Jones III. He’s someone who did time in prison and was initially unable to find either a job or an apartment upon being released.

It clearly seems that Jones has indeed turned his life around over the past eight years which is much to his credit. But it’s also worth noting that he was involved with the gangs in the area, was convicted of dealing drugs, and was the child of a father who was in the Black Panthers and a mother who was a member of Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam.

Ask yourself this. If you were a property owner reviewing applicants for an apartment, would someone fresh out on parole be your first choice as a new tenant if someone with less criminal enterprise in their background was available? If the next applicant you interview has a background in domestic violence or arson, how comfortable will you be about handing over the keys?

The fact is that incarceration for criminal conduct should be geared toward the hope of rehabilitation and minimizing recidivism, but there are social costs to such behavior that linger on after you’re released. Some sex offenders remain on “lists” for their entire lives. If you’re guilty of embezzlement you shouldn’t expect to get a job as an accountant right after you get out of prison.

And private property owners deserve the ability to seek out the best possible applicants for rentals with the highest probability of paying their rent on time and not causing any damage or engaging in illegal activities on their property. Whether that sounds “fair” to you or not depends on your personal perspective, I’m sure. This is all very similar to the “Ban the Box” initiative that’s been making the rounds for the past few years. (Mr. Jones from the story above is also active in Ban the Box.)

That program seeks to forbid employers from asking about job applicants’ criminal background information. But what’s intended as a way to give ex-convicts a better chance at landing a job also puts private sector employers in a very tenuous situation. If you wind up hiring a convicted sex offender without knowing it and they go on to assault someone at your place of business, you’ll probably wind up in court for being negligent. (Not to mention that a person under your roof was assaulted.)

It’s an imperfect system in an imperfect world and these unofficial rules of the road no doubt make life more difficult for ex-convicts. But we all bear responsibility for the consequences of our actions and decisions. Passing the burden off onto the shoulders of landlords and employers is just as unfair to people who have managed to obey the law over the course of their lives.