PATERSON – Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill into law Friday that prohibits landlords from asking most housing applicants about their criminal history.

Murphy said the “Fair Chance in Housing Act” is a way to chip away at systemic racial disparities and signed it on the first observation of Juneteenth as a federal and state holiday, during a ceremony at the Calvary Baptist Church.

“I am proud to sign into law a measure to further level what has been for too long an uneven playing field when it comes to access to housing,” Murphy said. “And in this enactment, we are once again making New Jersey the standard by which other states will now be judged.”

“The Fair Chance in Housing Act will ban once and for all the ability of landlords to reject prospective tenants merely because of a past criminal conviction,” he said. “Especially for those who carry on their records convictions for low-level or nonviolent crimes, those who we must support in their re-entry and re-establishment, this is nothing less than a game-changer.”

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Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said the nation needs to dismantle a system in which it’s difficult for former prison inmates to rent an apartment or get a job, Pell Grant, loan or credit card.

“Let’s take the New Jersey example … and let’s make it federal law,” said Morial, a former mayor of New Orleans who now lives in New Jersey. “Let’s take the New Jersey example and if we can’t make it federal law, let’s go state by state to get the protections.

“This is the absurdity in this nation,” he said. “We say to people that when you are incarcerated and you do your time and you return to society, that you can come back to society. But we’ve erected a system in this country that for even the most minor offense creates a wall of lifetime barriers.”

The Legislature passed the bill, S250/A1919, earlier this month. The final votes were 24-9 in the Senate and 49-16 with five votes to abstain in the Assembly. Generally speaking the vote was along party lines with Democrats in favor, but nine Republicans voted yes – three in the Senate and 6 in the Assembly.

The new law restricts landlords from requiring would-be tenants from completing any housing application that includes inquiries about their criminal records prior to the provision of a conditional offer.

After such an offer, records could be considered due to convictions for murder, rape, kidnapping, arson, human trafficking or sex offenses and for other indictable offenses depending on their seriousness and how long ago a person’s sentence was completed. It couldn’t be considered for arrests that don’t lead to convictions or cases that were expunged, pardoned or happened when someone was a juvenile.

Violators could be fined $1,000 for a first offense, $5,000 for a second offense within five years and $10,000 per incident for third violations or more within a seven-year period.

The law doesn’t apply to dwellings within owner-occupied premises of less than five units.

It grants landlords immunity from liability in civil lawsuits arising as a result of decisions to rent to individuals with criminal records, except for those who rent apartments to people who had been convicted of murder, rape, kidnapping, arson, human trafficking or sex offenses.

The law takes effect in January.

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