Advocates in New Jersey are hoping momentum continues with legislation that would block landlords from immediately dismissing rental-housing applicants based on their criminal histories.

Under measures that have been approved by committees in both the New Jersey Assembly and Senate, housing providers wouldn't be able to ask questions about an applicant's criminal record prior to the provision of a conditional offer.

The full Assembly is scheduled to vote on the measure during a 1 p.m. session Thursday.

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Landlords would eventually be able to conduct background checks on applicants and block a potential renter based on certain criminal-history criteria, but not until the conditional offer is on the books. The legislation would not apply to owner-occupied premises that have three or fewer dwelling units.

"We have individuals who have been free from crime lifestyles for the past 10 years and still cannot obtain housing because of their criminal conviction," said Priscilla Carmona, co-founder of Scores Reentry, a Jersey City-based nonprofit that helps individuals impacted by incarceration and addiction.

This housing obstacle is a "concrete problem" the group fights everyday, according to Carmona — without employment and a proper place to live, the formerly incarcerated struggle to get themselves out of a "vicious loop."

"What we're talking about are clients and populations that are being impacted by drug-related crimes, which are usually associated with the cycle of poverty," Carmona said.

After the issuance of a conditional offer, under the proposed Fair Chance in Housing Act, housing providers would be able to consider a criminal record in an applicant's history that resulted in convictions on serious crimes such as murder, kidnapping, arson, and any crime that would land someone on the state's sex offender registry. A landlord could also withdraw an offer depending on how recently an applicant's prison sentence concluded.

In order to avoid fines, housing providers would have to prove a "substantial, legitimate, nondiscriminatory interest" upon withdrawing a conditional offer.

Landlords would be permitted to inquire about an applicant's criminal history prior to an initial offer if the applicant discloses information voluntarily.

In response to the proposed law, the New Jersey Apartment Association said it believes in second chances and recognizes that the government has an obligation to balance opportunities for ex-offenders with ensuring the safety of residents.

"While the advocates point to housing as the primary cause of recidivism, the real drivers are the lack of both job training and financial resources, coupled with inadequate mental health assistance and proper identification," NJAA Executive Director David Brogan said. "Frankly, until government takes responsibility for adequately preparing ex-offenders to reintegrate into society, recidivism rates are unlikely to drop."

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