Democratic bill would increase housing access for formerly incarcerated Michigan residents

Housing Not Hurdles Rally

Detroit resident Marvin Cotton Jr. spent almost 20 years behind bars on a first-degree murder charge before he was exonerated in 2020.

Despite being absolved of any wrongdoing, he said the conviction stained his record and hindered his ability to find somewhere to live.

“I was innocent, and then I get out of prison but it was still on my record for about five months,” Cotton, 43, told the American Independent Foundation. “In that five months, it was impossible to find housing, so I had to pay a landlord who took advantage of me where I had to pay more to stay there.”

A lack of housing access is a problem the formerly incarcerated often face upon release, which is why Democratic lawmakers in the Michigan House of Representatives introduced House Bill 4878.

The bill, known as the Michigan Fair Chance Access to Housing Act, would prohibit a landlord from considering an applicant’s criminal history during the tenant screening process. Several Michigan communities, including Ann Arbor, Detroit and Kalamazoo, already limit the use of criminal background checks on housing applications.

Dozens of criminal justice advocates and formerly incarcerated people rallied in support of the legislation on the steps of the Michigan Capitol on Tuesday, Oct. 17. Those who spoke at the event, including bill sponsor Democratic Rep. Abraham Aiyash, said that while housing is a basic human need, criminal background checks discriminate against people who have already paid their debt to society.

“If you claim to be a person that believes in the criminal justice system in America, and somebody served their time, and they did the work that our justice system said they must do to atone for their problems and their sins, then you do not punish them once they are out,” Aiyash said.

2018 report from the Prison Policy Initiative found that incarcerated people are almost 10 times more likely to experience homelessness than the general public. Over 50,000 people enter homeless shelters from correctional facilities each year, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Cotton, who now works as a regional coordinator for Nation Outside, a criminal justice reform organization, said a lack of housing access may lead people to reoffend if they feel they have no other options.

He added that when they are able to obtain housing through available programs, the conditions can be “worse than prison.”

“If people can’t find housing the right way, they’re going to do whatever they can to find housing the wrong way,” Cotton said.

Under the House bill, if an applicant meets all income eligibility, rental history and credit score requirements, a landlord would have to issue a conditional offer to the applicant.

If a landlord is found to have denied an applicant based on their criminal history, they could face fines or other penalties imposed by the Michigan Department of Attorney General, which is charged with handling any subsequent complaints or investigations.

Eric Anderson of Detroit, 33, experienced firsthand being denied job and housing opportunities due to his criminal record. Anderson was convicted of armed robbery in 2010, but was exonerated and released nine years later.

“The majority of these people have spent years in prison, paid their debt to society,” Anderson said. “Give them a second chance so they can be successful in their community.”

There are certain stipulations outlined in the bill that would allow a landlord to withdraw any conditional offers made. They include if an applicant’s criminal record shows convictions for arson, human trafficking or any other felony decided one year prior to the offer date.

A landlord may also withdraw an offer if they determine there’s “a substantial, legitimate, and nondiscriminatory interest,” according to the bill language.

If someone feels their application was wrongly rejected, they would have the ability to appeal the decision within two weeks of the withdrawal notice. If this happens, the landlord would be required to assess the circumstances of an applicant’s individual case, such as the severity of the crime, the person’s age at the time they were convicted, and the safety of other residents.

“Everybody deserves housing, regardless of what mistakes you may have made in the past,” Aiyash said. “If you can pay the rent, then you should be able to rent the damn house.”

The bill is one of many housing and criminal justice reform policies introduced by Democratic legislators since they took the majority in both houses of the Michigan Legislature this year.

Roughly half of the Michigan House Democratic caucus has signed on to co-sponsor the bill. It was referred to the House Economic Development and Small Business Committee in June, where it awaits a vote to bring the bill before the full chamber.

Correction, Oct. 19, 2023: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that the bill is waiting to be brought before the Michigan House.