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CHAMPAIGN — More than 700 Champaign residents have signed a petition asking city council members to repeal a section of the city code that allows for housing discrimination against people with prior felony convictions.

As it stands now, Chapter 17 of the city code permits "discrimination in the leasing of residential property based upon a person's record of convictions for a forcible felony or a felony drug conviction or the conviction for the sale, manufacture or distribution of illegal drugs" for up to five years after release.

The petition will be presented to council members at tonight's study session on the issue, said Randall Nelson with the Fair Housing Campaign.

Beyond tonight, council members will ultimately have three options of what to do about the language when the frequently debated topic comes up for vote: amend it, leave it as is or scrap it altogether.

Several community organizations, the council-appointed Human Relations Commission and now about 700 residents are in a favor of the latter. But it appears advocates have more convincing to do before winning the support of the full council.

Nelson's argument: The language as written is "very highly discriminatory against African Americans."

He points to data that shows 69 percent of African-Americans in Champaign are renters and that 66 percent of people sent to prison in Champaign County are black.

Countywide, the black population is slightly over 13 percent, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

If the majority of people going to, then getting out of, prison and looking for housing are black, then discriminating "simply based on their prior criminal convictions" will disproportionately affect one race, Nelson said.

"If you remove this ordinance, it doesn't take anything away from landlords in terms of things they can ask any property renter," Nelson added. "You look at things like references, income, whether or not they will pay their rent. But simply denying a whole class of people the opportunity to rent is unfair."

Beck: It's discrimination

Council members reached Monday expressed a difference of opinion.

Both Vanna Pianfetti and Greg Stock favor revising the ordinance but not getting rid of it.

Tom Bruno and Clarissa Fourman want it to remain as is.

Alicia Beck, who has been a strong advocate for repealing the code section, reasserted her commitment on Monday.

"When we hand the keys to one group of business owners to continue to make decisions on whether someone is worthy of housing, then we're saying that this singular group has the capability to decide whether or not someone should continue to be punished," Beck said. "So when we ask to continue to assess someone in that way, I believe we continue to discriminate against people on a racial basis because we're talking about a group of individuals who are primarily African-American."

Beck added that it's up to council members to assess the situation fairly and without bias.

But when asked if she believes being a landlord will influence the decisions of some members, Beck said: "If I were making decisions about people who want to run a fitness business, my background would definitely inform that decision, so that's something that can't be denied."

Bruno: Serves purpose

Bruno, who rents out three one-bedroom apartments above his office in Urbana, said he'd like "to take into consideration any variable about a potential tenant that might reflect on their ability to follow the rules."

He said "it's a good and valid code provision that serves its purpose," so it shouldn't be changed, adding that a property owner is entitled to take into consideration anything when it comes to a "complicated financial arrangement between two different parties."

Bruno, an attorney, also takes issue with the contention that those who leave the criminal-justice system "have paid their debt to society."

"That's not an accurate statement of the criminal-justice system," he said. "When you violate the rules of society, some of that is a burden you pay forevermore.

"It's like having an act of infidelity with your spouse. Some of that harm never goes away."

Stock: Talk it out

Stock, who is also a landlord of about 15 units, said he was leaning toward the middle road because "I don't think keeping it as is is a good thing, but I don't think an all-out repeal is a good thing."

Stock said he's willing to look at the timeline because he believes "five years is way too long." He favors outlining the types of felonies that landlords should be allowed to discriminate against.

"From my experience, having the language in there allows you to have a conversation with the person," Stock said. "If you take it out entirely, I'm not sure what kind of legal footing you're on."

Stock said he has four tenants that he would have been legally within his right not to rent to. But he said he used the opportunity instead to discuss with tenants what they did and how they've changed.

"In my case, I've never turned down an application because of a felony," Stock said. "I typically will give people a chance because I believe everyone deserves a second chance.

"But I also understand that the agreement is whether or not this person should have a hold of this $65,000 house. It's a little riskier for people and I get that, but some landlords at least will talk to the person. I can't believe I'm the only one."