Community advocates push for enforcement of NJ’s fair housing law
In June 2021, Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law something called the Fair Chance in Housing Act, intended to deter landlords and other housing providers from asking about a housing applicant's criminal history.
Now, New Jerseyans reentering society following incarceration, who are most often victimized by such questions, are joining with faith leaders to make sure that the state follows through on enforcing the legislation.
On Wednesday, led by the nonprofit coalition New Jersey Together, these stakeholders advocated for more action from New Jersey officials.
One such reentering citizen, Edwin Ortiz, struck a common chord with many of the other speakers, saying not only had he been denied housing in the past, but that his prior criminal status had jeopardized the housing situations of relatives and friends he stayed with after his release.
"I want to urge the Attorney General's office to take measures to ensure that the Fair Chance in Housing Act is being followed, and encourage landlords to be open to renting to returning citizens," Ortiz said.
'We're not talking about animals, we're not talking about aliens, we're talking about human beings'
Rev. Herman Scott, chaplain of the Morris County Correctional Facility, said jail statistics there indicate a 40% recidivism rate, mainly because those released from custody have not been able to find places to live.
Easing that process would improve their lives as well as the economies of the communities in which they settle, Scott said.
"We're not talking about animals, we're not talking about aliens, we're talking about human beings, and I believe that every human being has the right to have a chance to start over," he said. "So with this bill being supported, we will greatly increase that capacity."
Specific ways in which the Fair Chance in Housing Act might be enforced, along with penalties for non-compliance, have been hard to define.
But seeing as it has only been on the books for seven months, Ortiz said awareness alone was an important first step.
"We want the Attorney General to inform landlords and developers in general of the law, so they are aware of the law," he said.
Rev. Alonzo Perry Sr. of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Jersey City feels the issue is urgent because so far, he said, there has been "no compliance."
However, those who believe their rights under the Fair Chance in Housing Act have been violated may file a complaint with the Office of the Attorney General's Division on Civil Rights within 180 days of the alleged offense.
"They will launch an investigation, and that unit does not, cannot be filled until they close that investigation and a remedy can be provided," James Williams, director of racial justice policy for the Cherry Hill-based Fair Share Housing Center, said.
Williams went on to say that the DCR is launching a series of training webinars for both landlords and tenants in February, to better clarify how to navigate the still-new law.