Good Landlord Programs are Not Entirely Good

The following op-ed, written by our policy analyst Josh Daniels, was published today in the Salt Lake Tribune.

Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs used the coercive arm of the state to expel an unwelcome segment of society in 1838 using an “extermination order.” (In that era, extermination meant to drive something from within certain borders — in other words, expulsion.) Members of the fledgling Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were forced to migrate elsewhere, ultimately settling in Utah. Now, lawmakers in Utah have implemented policies that similarly expel unwanted citizens from their communities.

These innocently named “Good Landlord Programs” are a discriminatory restriction on people with past criminal convictions (some of whom may have in fact been innocent). Almost all programs in Utah cities — with a couple of notable exceptions — actually require participating landlords to refuse to rent their residential properties to individuals convicted of a felony within the past four years.

Proponents of the programs characterize them as a purely voluntary way for landlords to, as Salt Lake City argues, “help eliminate code violations and public nuisances while controlling and preventing illegal activity on rental properties that impact the quality of life within our neighborhoods.”

These programs, however, cannot be construed as “voluntary.” Cities effectively extort landlords into compliance by charging vastly different fees for participating and non-participating property owners. A landlord who agrees to all the stipulations in a city’s Good Landlord Program may be assessed as small a fee as $20 per rental unit, while a landlord who chooses not to participate may pay 10 to 20 times that amount.

Of course, it makes no financial sense for a landlord to opt out. A non-compliant landlord would have to substantially raise rents to pay the hefty fees, putting him or her at a significant market disadvantage. Thus, landlords are effectively coerced into participation, thereby reducing the availability of rental options to individuals looking to successfully re-integrate back into their communities.

Multiple government agencies and public interest groups have come together this summer to analyze Utah’s criminal justice system. Much of this discussion focuses on Utah’s high recidivism rate, or the likelihood that an offender will end up back in prison after release.

At the same time, Reps. Curt Oda and Gage Froerer have initiated an interim discussion about necessary revisions to Utah’s statutes authorizing Good Landlord Programs. The two conversations (reducing recidivism and reforming Good Landlord Programs more broadly) have not yet intersected — but they should.

In Utah almost all released inmates who return to prison do so within three years — most of those within the first year after release. Yet state law allows cities to force landlords to deny tenancy to ex-offenders who have been out of prison less than four years.

Many individuals fail to reintegrate because they can’t find jobs, can’t get help with substance abuse problems or mental illness — or because they can’t find housing. Correctional professionals say that stable housing is critical to successful community reentry. It makes little sense to push ex-felons into homelessness, more crime and another taxpayer-funded prison sentence.

Let’s be clear: Landlords who don’t want to rent to ex-felons shouldn’t have to. However, some property owners do want to rent to ex-felons. Forcing those landlords to participate in a program that absolutely forbids this is flawed public policy and an infringement of property rights. Landlords and tenants alike have a right to contract that cities should not be permitted to violate.

We support the basic goals of Good Landlord Programs. Most Utahns want safe neighborhoods, fewer nuisances and a good quality of life. The ends do not justify the means, however. The discriminatory means utilized by many Utah cities to turn former felons into outcasts should be rejected. Utah can and should find a more reasonable and neighborly approach. We owe it, at a minimum, to our ancestors.

The executive order signed by Gov. Boggs was finally rescinded by a successor. In 1976, 138 years after Latter-day Saints were forcefully ejected from the communities they called home. It’s time that the Utah Legislature follow suit by reforming the Good Landlord Program to allow landlords to rent to former felons if they desire to, as is their right.