Unfortunately, we live in a world full of people who often believe far more in accountability and punishment than they do in redemption and second chances. Citizens make mistakes, get locked up, serve their time and pay their debt, only to be released into a society where they still don’t feel like citizens anymore. It’s a difficult thing to muster up societal empathy for an ex-con.
If they’re not constantly running into barriers in finding gainful employment or there isn’t some Republican lawmaker taking it upon himself to make it harder for felons to regain their voting rights, then something as simple finding adequate housing can present a challenge.
This goes especially for residents in states that have high costs of living and poor reputations for providing affordable housing, like California, where more than 40 percent of residents are now classified as housing cost-burdened, the highest proportion of any state, according to U.S. News.
California, especially in cities in the Bay Area like Oakland and San Francisco, is one of those states that are known as giant hubs for gentrification, rising homelessness and one-bedroom apartments that rent for over $2,500 a month. It’s hard enough for your average citizen with a clean record to find a place they can afford, let alone someone burdened with the stigma that comes with having served time.
But, again, former felons and convicts tend to receive more scorn from society than sympathy. There are those who will be presumptuous enough to suggest they simply move somewhere cheaper. But what if they only have family in Cali? What if they have children in school there and don’t want to upend their lives? What if it’s the only home they themselves know and are comfortable living in? Or maybe they’ve already found employment where they live and don’t wish to start over.
Thankfully Oakland is making strides to remedy, or at least, marginally improve the conditions standing in the way of former convicts who need of housing. U.S. News reports that on Feb. 4, Oakland’s City Council passed a new ordinance prohibiting public and private landlords from inquiring about potential tenants’ criminal histories. The new law is called the Oakland Fair Chance Housing Ordinance, and it makes the California city among the first major cities to have anything—this expansive on its books. This comes decades after the beginning of the “ban the box” movement, which was started by civil rights groups and advocates for ex-offenders aiming to stop employers from discriminating against the formerly incarcerated.
Right now there are more than 70 million Americans burdened by criminal records, and it is hoped that ordinances like this will spread over the nation, beginning a new day in opportunity for those who are simply trying to live right and in comfort in spite of their pasts.
In a recent news conference that took place before the council’s ordinance passed, Lee “Taqwaa” Bonner, a former convict turned advocate working with the group Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, spoke to reporters.
“I was born and raised in Oakland. I am employed in Oakland. … However, I cannot live in Oakland based solely on my criminal record, which happened 30 years ago.”
Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas is hopeful that, with this new measure, stories like Bonner’s will occur far less frequently.
“With more and more people returning home from the criminal justice system, housing is really the most basic need that people [have] in order to get back on their feet. It’s really going to help create more opportunity and sort of level the playing field.”
I really hope she’s right. There are millions of ex-convicts who don’t deserve to have crimes that they’ve paid for following them around and disrupting every aspect of their day-to-day lives.