Advocates Win New Protections from Housing Discrimination in Cook County, Illinois

Over 1 million adults in Chicago and its surrounding communities now have fairer access to safe, affordable homes under a recently enacted “Just Housing Amendment.” Under the Cook County ordinance, part of the county’s fair housing law that went to effect on December 31, 2019, landlords can no longer consider arrests or use blanket bans on conviction records; instead, they must consider factors such as how long it has been since the person’s conviction, the type of offense, and ways the person has shown they can be a good tenant. 

Having a stable home is critical for people returning to their communities after an arrest or conviction, as well as for their families and the broader community. A safe, affordable home reduces the rate of recidivism and allows families to reunite. Governments spend less on emergency services like homeless shelters, hospitals, and prisons.

And because people of color and people with disabilities are disproportionately more likely to become involved with the justice system, the Just Housing Amendment advances racial and economic justice.

The Just Housing Initiative – a coalition of over 100 organizations, including NLIHC state partner Housing Action Illinois, and dozens of individuals with lived experience – advocated for this new law for four years. Just Housing Leaders with lived experience were especially important in the campaign’s success through the leadership and advocacy they provided every step of the way. Before the Cook County Board of Commissioners voted on the Just Housing Amendment in April 2019, over 50 Just Housing Leaders showed up to testify at the committee hearing, sharing powerful stories that brought the significance of the law to life. 

Troy O’Quin, a veteran and community leader who lives and works in Cook County, was joined by his wife and two daughters at the hearing. He testified about his difficulties accessing housing due to his past record. “It takes only a second to break the law but a lifetime to live with the consequences,” Troy said. “One second, one crime, one serious lack of judgment . . . in America, this can be a life sentence.”

Now that the amendment has gone into effect, the campaign is focusing its efforts on educating the public and stakeholders about the new ordinance and their rights, as well as monitoring compliance and enforcement. People with lived-experience will be crucial to this work, helping to facilitate trainings on the new law.

Kansas City Renters Win First-Ever Tenant Bill of Rights

Renters in Kansas City achieved some big wins in 2019. On December 13, Mayor Quinton Lucas signed the city’s first Tenant Bill of Rights, creating new rights for city renters and listing them with other, previously existing tenant protections. The new Tenant Bill of Rights will be a baseline expectation for all property owners renting property in the city, and obeying this law is required to receive a license to rent. A resolution that passed with the legislation commits the mayor and city council to protect these renters’ rights moving forward. 

Under the new law, landlords can no longer deny applicants with criminal or eviction histories when they first apply to rent a home, but landlords may still do background checks later in the approval process. The new law also strengthens the requirement for landlords to notify tenants before entering their homes, requiring at least a 24-hour notice. Renters will also have better knowledge of costs before moving in, as landlords are now required to provide a list of utility companies and an estimate of utility costs. The city’s fair housing ordinances are expanded as well, making gender identity and expression protected classes. 

This historic win was led by renters and the grassroots activist group KC Tenants and supported by a coalition that included lawyers, the mayor’s office, and champions on the city council. 

KC Tenants began its work in early 2019 shortly after making tenants’ rights a key issue in the Kansas City spring elections and then launching its campaign to win the Tenant Bill of Rights. Because the final Tenant Bill of Rights did not include everything KC Tenants wanted, there is more work to do. For example, the initial proposal included a strong ban on discrimination against voucher holders that was not included in the final ordinance. KC Tenants Executive Director Tara Raghuveer says that, overall, this is good policy done the right way, emphasizing that people directly impacted were involved and leading throughout the process.