House For People with Criminal Backgrounds

By Charlie Spaeth PAC Committee Chair

On May 16th Governor Jay Inslee signed Engrossed Senate Bill (ESB) 5105, officially described as: AN ACT Relating to conditions under which the Department of Corrections provides rental vouchers to an offender; amending RCW 3 9.94A.729; and adding a new section to Chapter 72.09 RCW.

That doesn’t sound very exciting, but in the photo of the bill being signed by Governor Inslee, there are several RHA members, staff and lobbyists,all of whom worked hard to guide the bill, first through the Senate, then the House. In fact, the signing came after some version of the bill had been introduced in every session of the legislature for the last five years. This year we finally got it through.

People coming out of prison have always had a hard time renting housing. In fact, many who are eligible for release are not released because they have no place to live. People with criminal backgrounds are considered high-risk tenants and, understandably, many owners don’t want to take a chance with them. Keeping people in prison beyond their earned release date is obviously not good for them either, nor for the taxpayer, since the annual cost to incarcerate is $30,000 per inmate.

A few owners, however, like RHA member Jim Tharpe, specialize in renting to ex-offenders. Some of these peoplereceive several months worth of housing vouchers from the Department of Corrections (DOC) to help them transition back to living in the community. Tharpe’s Unity House operates three houses, each with six people living in a structured communal living setting. It is a private halfway house program that provides not only housing, but an artificial family for men coming out of prison. Houses like his are valuable to society because they relieve pressure on prisons and provide stable living environments, to say nothing of the lives they help rebuild. All of this helps reduce recidivism.

Unfortunately, some owners aren’t so responsible. They pack as many ex-offender tenants into their houses as possible, providing no re-entry programs or oversight. Municipalities have not been able to regulate such neighborhood destroying houses.

Predictably, those neighborhoods have erupted with angry homeowners. The relationship between landlord and tenant is a civil affair, governed by state, not municipal law. Municipalities have had no ability to regulate either the location or operation of such houses. Now–with the passage of ESB 5105–they do. ESB 5105 enhances community safety by allowing municipalities to apply zoning restrictions and allow for code inspections of re-entry houses that accept DOC housing vouchers.

The law is also designed to create a system of accountability between local municipalities, owners and DOC. If owners are to get on the “voucher housing“ list they have to toe the line.

Lately, some municipalities have been moving toward passing ordinances that would make people with criminal backgrounds a protected class.

A criminal history would no longer pass muster as a reason for denying a rental applicant. We don’t think that’s right, because it diminishes an owner’s ability to control his/her own property. ESB 5105, however, encourages owners who voluntarily choose to be part of the DOC voucher program to do so, and receive clear guidelines for what it takes to get on DOC’s list.

RHA acknowledges that people with criminal backgrounds face significant challenges when seeking to rent housing. ESB 5105, while only a small step toward helping address this problem, is significantly the very first step in this direction ever taken in the State of Washington. Without RHA it would not be law today.

This is how part of the dollars you donate to the RHA Political Action Fund are used. In addition to RHA protecting the interests of members-you and me–we also work to protect vulnerable people and the safety of the communities we live in.