Last year, state Sen. Dina Neal heard from a group of formerly incarcerated women who struggled to find housing long after their release.
One woman in particular, Neal said, had never had an apartment in her name in the seven years she has been released from prison.
“When she was released, she got an apartment under her daughter’s name because she was denied. When she wanted to move to a better place, she got an apartment where her mother had to cosign,” she said. “When I heard these stories, I realized there is an underground group of women, of human beings, who do not have a place to live, yet we have given them freedom.”
People with criminal histories are often denied housing because of past convictions.
Senate Bill 254, which Neal presented Wednesday to the Senate Committee on Government Affairs, prohibits landlords from refusing to lease because of arrest records and criminal history. Private owners renting rooms in their homes are exempt.
The bill, if passed, wouldn’t apply to people convicted of sex crimes and who are on the statewide registry of sex offenders.
A proposed amendment heard during the presentation would also bar weekly rental operators from running warrants checks on applicants except for felony warrants, and only at the time of application.
While she didn’t name the company, Neal said there was one weekly operator in Las Vegas that consistently runs warrant checks after renting a room to a person.
The practice results in people getting arrested for warrants, including those related to misdemeanors like unpaid traffic tickets.
“So you’ve gone into a weekly, you’ve paid, but then in 24 hours a warrant check has been run on you and the next thing you know you have Metro knocking on your door for a warrant,” Neal said. “You’re arrested and basically removed from your housing because of the warrant.”
Neal stressed the legislation doesn’t prevent renters from being removed from their apartment for nuisance behavior or for violating lease agreements.
“What I’m trying to deal with is the initial application, when you’re trying to get in and your criminal background is being used against you so you cannot lease an apartment,” she said.
In recent legislative sessions, lawmakers have been dealing with repercussions of mass incarceration that have exploded prison populations across the country, including Nevada’s prisons.
Prior to the 2019 session, the Crime and Justice Institute found Nevada’s prison population had increased 7 percent in the last decade and was 15 percent higher than the national average.
The report showed the incarceration rate for women increased 39 percent and that the majority of crimes were nonviolent offenses like drug and property crimes.
Lawmakers passed some reforms lowering penalties for non-violent theft and drug crimes and increasing access to diversion programs and specialty court programs.
However, there are still barriers faced by those formerly incarcerated, such as finding housing, that could increase the likelihood of recidivism. In a 2018 report, the Prison Policy Initiative found “formerly incarcerated people are almost 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public.”
“We don’t want them to be homeless. We don’t want them living on the street,” Neal said.
Oftentimes, Neal is asked to speak to incarcerated women who are in work programs behind bars or part of re-entry programs.
“When I’m speaking to these women, I’m speaking hope to them but I’ve never once said, ‘I sure hope you can find a place to live when you get out,’ ” she said. “Shouldn’t you have the right, if you’ve obtained your freedom, to live like everyone else and to be able to live in an apartment and not have your prior history dictate where you have to stay.”
Ngai Pindell, a professor at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law who testified alongside Neal, said while people of color make up about 37 percent of the U.S. population, they are nearly 70 percent of the prison population.
“There are 19 million people who live with a felony record and one-third of them are Black,” he said.
Because of statistics around race and incarceration rates, he said access to housing for those who are formerly incarcerated is a racial equity issue.
Pindell added the pandemic has underscored the need for housing, which helps people socially distance and stay safe.
“We’ve seen over the last year with Covid that access to housing is a public health issue and a critical response to our response to Covid,” he said.
SB 254 was supported by groups including the Nevada Homeless Alliance and the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.
Formerly incarcerated women also testified in support and urged lawmakers to pass the legislation and “just give them a fair chance.”
The bill is opposed by the Nevada Apartment Association, who said the legislation goes too far.
“Criminal convictions carry consequences,” said Susy Vasquez, the executive director of the Apartment Association. “As an association, we owe a duty to our residents to ensure their safety.”