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Sparks Fly Over Bill to Ban Criminal Background Checks on Co-op Buyers

Bill Morris in Board Operations on December 8, 2022

New York City

Fair Chance for Housing Act, criminal background checks, apartment buyers, co-op boards.
Dec. 8, 2022

At a hearing before the New York City Council on Thursday, Dec. 8, proponents and opponents clashed over the proposed Fair Chance for Housing Act, which would prohibit landlords and building owners, including co-op boards, from obtaining the criminal records of anyone trying to rent or buy an apartment in a multi-family dwelling.

The bill would not prohibit inquiries into the state sex offender registry, but it would require that the board, landlord, owner, agents and brokers provide the applicant written notice about such an inquiry — plus a reasonable amount of time, not more than three days, to withdraw an application. Under the bill, someone who believes he or she has been discriminated against because of his or her criminal history could file a lawsuit against the building owner or a complaint with the New York City Commission on Human Rights.

The bill does not apply to two-family, owner-occupied housing, rented rooms in owner-occupied housing, or New York City Housing Authority properties. It does apply to apartment buyers in co-ops and subletters in co-ops and condominiums

Proponents of the bill, also known as Intro. 632, say it will address a long-standing social injustice as well as the city’s chronic homeless problem. An estimated 750,000 residents of New York City have a criminal conviction, according to Fair Chance for Housing, a group that supports the bill. A 2018 report from the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit group that advocates for criminal justice reform, found that formerly incarcerated people are nearly 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public.

“Every human being deserves a roof over their head and a bed to sleep on,” council member Shekar Krishnan (D-Jackson Heights), one of the bill’s 31 co-sponsors, tells the Queens Chronicle. “We won’t be able to solve our housing crisis by making it more difficult for people to find a home. People in homes equals safer communities.”

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The Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums is leading the chorus of opposition to the bill. On its website the group writes: “For boards in cooperatives and condominiums to fulfill their responsibility to ensure safety and quality of life for all residents, they need access to past history in order to evaluate the nature of the crime, the length of time since it occurred and any evidence of recidivism.”

Geoffrey Mazel, a partner at the law firm Hankin & Mazel, testified at the hearing in his capacity as co-chair of the Queens Bar Association’s co-op and condo committee. (He’s also legal counsel for the Presidents Co-op & Condo Council.) “The right of co-op boards to vet prospective shareholders has been recognized for years,” Mazel said before testifying. “To completely clip co-op boards’ wings and have shareholders come in blindly is not in the interest of co-ops. A person convicted of embezzlement could become treasurer of the co-op board and steal money from the co-op. We’re requesting that co-ops be exempt from the bill.”

Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents 25,000 landlords and building managers, writes in an op-ed article in amNY that Intro. 632 is “one of the most controversial bills in city history” and “a perfect example of lawmakers prioritizing political agendas over sound policy.”

Also testifying in opposition to the bill at the Thursday hearing were Warren Schreiber, co-head of the Presidents Co-op & Condo Council, and board presidents from half a dozen Queens co-ops, representing more than 10,000 housing units.  

A rally on the steps of City Hall the day before the hearing drew a crowd of opponents to the proposed legislation. But with 31 co-sponsors among the 51 members of the city council, some form of the bill is expected to become law.

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