Champaign To Consider Changing Housing Policy Advocates Call Discriminatory
Hundreds of Champaign residents have signed a petition asking the City Council to repeal a measure they say discriminates against people with a criminal record.
The policy allows landlords to deny housing to people with certain prior convictions, unless they’ve been out of prison for 5 years.
The Champaign City Council will meet Tuesday night to discuss possible changes to the policy, which passed in 1994 as an amendment to the 1977 Human Rights Ordinance that prohibits all types of discrimination.
The amendment provides an exception for landlords, allowing them not to rent to people who have been convicted of a “forcible felony,” which includes treason, murder, sexual assault, robbery, burglary and other crimes that involve the use or threat of physical force, or violence against another person.
City Council member Alicia Beck said those in favor of the amendment argue it helps create safer communities.
“If we’ve decided they’ve served their years, I think that we can consider that person someone that can contribute positively to society,” Beck said.
A 2017 report from the Champaign County Racial Justice Task Force found repealing the discriminatory measure is one of the necessary steps to reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
That’s because in Champaign County, roughly two-thirds of people entering prison are African-American, even though they only make up 13% of the population, said Randall Nelson, spokesperson for the Fair Housing Campaign, which formed to promote the adoption of the recommendations made by the Racial Justice Task Force.
James Kilgore is the co-director of the First Followers re-entry program in Champaign, one of the groups advocating for the repeal.
“It’s absurd, I believe, in 2019, when we’re actually looking at the whole system of mass incarceration and how disproportionately that’s impacted black people in particular,” Kilgore said. “An ordinance like this is just objectively racist.”
But he said repealing the ordinance is only a small step toward people coming out of prison succeed in society. He said central and southern Illinois lack transitional housing.
Kilgore also criticized the city of Champaign for having had numerous discussions about supporting re-entry efforts over the years without action steps to follow them up.
Beck agreed with Kilgore’s sentiment, saying re-entry efforts spearheaded by the city are “sub-par.”
She said many organizations in the community, which are often led by African-Americans, provide support for people re-entering society.
“We have to stop asking black communities to do the hard work with no money,” Beck said. “We have to start putting our dollars where our suggestions are. If we don’t do that, we’re not going to be seeing the movement that we want toward the positive changes we continue to talk about.”
A City Council report found that no other municipalities in Illinois have a similar policy that allows landlords to discriminate against people with prior felony convictions.
The report proposes two options open for discussion at Tuesday's study session on the issue: take no action or make modifications to the amendment. Beck said a full repeal is an option that could also be discussed.
The study session will take place at the Champaign City Council meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 25, 2019, at the Champaign City Building. You can read the study session documents below.
Follow Christine on Twitter: @CTHerman