Michigan Bill Would Prevent Housing Providers From Checking Renters’ Criminal Records

by | Nov 1, 2023 | News

By Jarrett Skorup

A series of bills in the Michigan Legislature is meant to make housing more affordable, but it would do the opposite. The best way to have affordable housing is to make it easier for nonprofits and developers to build housing, not impose mandates and restrictions.

If government regulations could bring down housing costs, California and New York would have the most affordable housing in the country. Instead, the opposite is true.

Most of the “Renter’s Bill of Rights” package is stalled, but legislators heard testimony on a bill to limit the ways property managers use criminal background checks to screen prospective tenants. The bill is being pushed hard by a variety of advocacy groups. House Bill 4878 would, according to the House Fiscal Agency, “generally prohibit a landlord from using an individual’s criminal record when evaluating the individual’s rental application at any stage in the application process, except as provided by the act or under federal or state law.”

Essentially, the bill makes it illegal to conduct a criminal background check or to ask about a rental applicant’s criminal background, beyond what is required by federal law or any law related to sex offenders. The bill would set up a complicated process landlords would have to follow; diverging from it would open them up to taxpayer-funded prosecution and civil liability.

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People with criminal backgrounds should be able to find housing. Landlords, for their part, need information on their renters, which means knowing about the past criminal activity of those who would rent from them. The bill, as written, is a gift to trial attorneys, who would have a new tool for getting more business. While the legislation may help some people with criminal backgrounds find housing, it will have major unintended consequences.

Some people argue that the government keeps too many crimes on background checks for too long. That’s why lawmakers, in a bipartisan fashion, tackled expungement reform recently. And perhaps legislators should do more.

But different landlords have different risk tolerances, clientele and properties. They know their own properties and their neighbors, and they are in the best position to know when to rent to someone who has a criminal background.

A one-size-fits-all government mandate that limits property managers’ ability to consult criminal history records would severely affect their ability to know the people they are renting to. It violates their property rights and greatly increases the risk to housing providers and other renters. In short, House Bill 4878 does more harm than good.

Permission to reprint this blog post in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author (or authors) and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy are properly cited.

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