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A statewide law could make it easier for people with criminal records to find a place to live

 The Nation Outside information booth at Kalamazoo's Pride Festival on June 3, 2023.  Petitions and literature sit on top of a blue tablecloth.  There's a mug with pens in it. Tenee Gildea is on one side in a black tank top talking to someone about the issues the group supports, like Michigan's Fair Chance Access to Housing Act.
Leona Larson
Tenee Gildea (far right) staffs the Nation Outside information table at Kalamazoo Pride on June 3, 2023.

A City of Kalamazoo ordinance gives rights to renters with criminal records, but advocates say a state law would do more.

Dustin Corwin moved to Kalamazoo because of a new law.

He’d served his time, for convictions related to drug possession and organized shoplifting. He left prison in 2017 and went on to earn two college degrees, including a master's in social work. But years later, he still couldn’t rent an apartment in his hometown of Coldwater. Then in 2020, he heard about the City of Kalamazoo's new Fair Housing ordinance. It was passed to prevent discrimination against people with a criminal record.

“I thought, man, my God, this is where I need to be. Kalamazoo has a strong community and now they have laws that will protect people like me,” Corwin said.

“So I've changed my whole life and I moved to Kalamazoo specifically for that law. And when I got here, it felt like just a pipe dream. I went around to landlords, I tried to even show them the policy. And most of them just quit talking to me. And I was just, I was dumbfounded.”

Corwin said despite the law, several Kalamazoo landlords turned him down because of his criminal record and did not give him a chance to explain the work he's done to move past his mistakes, as required by the ordinance. Corwin sued two of the landlords and settled with one landlord in December for $35,000. The other case is still in progress.

Corwin sits on the City of Kalamazoo’s Civil Rights board, which reviews complaints against landlords. He said society continues to punish people who have completed their prison sentence.

“So, if somebody is sentenced to 20-30 years, whatever. When they come out, we have to accept them back into the society. They have done their time; they paid their debt to society,” he said.

“And that's where I'm at. I understand the rights of people (landlords) to protect their money. But I do not understand the right to abuse a population who has already paid their debt to society.”

Kalamazoo’s 2020 Fair Housing ordinance bars landlords from having a blanket policy of simply refusing to rent to anyone with a record. Past convictions can be taken into consideration, but other factors must be considered too; like rehabilitation efforts, how much time has passed, and if the crime was housing-related.

State Rep. Abraham Aiyash (D-Hamtramck) introduced a bill in Lansing last month that would give similar rights to tenants with convictions statewide. The Michigan Fair Chance Access to Housing Act requires landlords to consider applications from prospective tenants before they do a criminal background check.

Tenee Gildea is with the Kalamazoo chapter of the nonprofit group Nation Outside.

“I think that’s why the housing bill is so important, is because it doesn’t allow them the opportunity to see it (the criminal background) before they say yes or no. They say yes or no, tentatively, before they check it.”

Gildea said the bill also requires landlords to give a prospective renter the chance to make the case that they would be a good tenant, before the landlord makes a final decision to deny housing.

The state bill also sets fines and penalties for landlords who violate the law.

Leona has worked as a journalist for most of her life - in radio, print, television and as journalism instructor. She has a background in consumer news, special projects and investigative reporting.