CHAMPAIGN — In what appeared to be a somewhat satisfying compromise for most people, Champaign City Council members opted to change some language in the city code that had come under criticism for allowing discrimination against the formerly incarcerated.
It became obvious early on in Tuesday night’s marathon meeting that there were not enough votes to fully repeal the section allowing landlords to take into account a felony conviction received up to five years in the past when deciding whether to rent to a tenant.
The measure wasn’t up for vote, but a straw poll revealed it would have been defeated, 7-2.
So council members have asked city staff to come back in a future study session with two possible changes:
— A reduction in the amount of time landlords can hold felonies against potential tenants, from five years to two.
— A rewording of the language to make its intent more clear.
Members Tom Bruno and Vanna Pianfetti voted not to reduce the time to two years, but the vote on clarifying the language received unanimous support.
After two-plus hours of public comment and about another hour of council comment, it was clear to Mayor Deb Feinen that the language is confusing.
“I think it needs to be cleaned up,” Feinen said. “Nobody is on the same page, which tells me it’s time for us to clean up the language. Whatever it was that the council meant to say in 1994 is no longer what everyone understands that it says.”
Council members also asked city staff to bring back more information on how the language can disallow a landlord’s consideration of certain drug convictions, and for a deep dive into a recently passed Chicago ordinance that limits criminal history inquiries by landlords.
‘Racist and discriminatory’
Still, to council members Matthew Gladney and Alicia Beck, who were both in the repeal camp, the disproportionate impact the language has on African Americans and people of color remained a concern. Both praised the final compromise but were unequivocal about their understanding of the code.
“This is a racist and discriminatory policy,” Beck said. “But this (compromise) is a step in the right direction to breaking down racial disparities that truly exist.”
Gladney seconded Beck’s sentiment, adding that he doesn’t “feel comfortable resting on the kindness of others” or “having this on our books.” He said he won’t pretend that every person who serves their sentence is “completely reformed and will never re-offend,” but he doesn’t think the city should “erect road blocks.”
“To have a roof over one’s head is, aside from food in the belly, one of the most vital things someone can have in order to lead a better life,” Gladney said. “Yes, they screwed up. They made bad choices.
“A lot of people made bad choices. But not everyone got caught.”
Disappointed, elated or apathetic, most members of Tuesday night’s audience found something to agree on in the compromise. That included former Urbana alderwoman and CU Tenant Union member Esther Patt.
“Reducing five years to two and removing drug possession and nonviolent crimes will benefit a lot of people,” Patt said. “But the change does not remove the biggest challenge to re-entry, which is finding a place to live if your family doesn’t own their own home.”
‘A good compromise’
Champaign attorney Rochelle Funderburg, who represents many local landlords, said the end result was “a good compromise.”
“I think it’s always a good idea to review these kinds of things periodically. ... But I also think it would be helpful for my clients to have pretty clear direction on the kind of felonies that they can ask about,” she said.
Funderburg said that if the language in the code is simply repealed, “you’re taking away the ability of the landlord to delve into all that happened, what their situation is, etcetera.”
If landlords were only allowed access to a person’s income, credit score and rental history, they would have no way to know the reason for the wide gaps for the formerly incarcerated, which would most likely lead to more denials, she said.
Council member Angie Brix gave similar remarks Tuesday, adding that the council needs to get back to its goal of supporting re-entry programs in the community.
“We haven’t had that discussion yet,” Brix said. “We need to look at those things to know how to help.”
In addition to housing, Pianfetti noted that those who are fresh out of prison are also restrained by the fact they don’t often have jobs or transportation.
“Systemically, I don’t think we’re addressing what is really going on here,” Pianfetti said. “This (compromise) is something very tangible we can look at to say, ‘This is wrong.’
“But it’s hard to sit up here and hear that you’re being racist if you do this or don’t do that. We have to think about what can we do to better prepare and better do this work.”