New Jersey governor signs legislation barring landlords from requesting tenants’ criminal history to mark Juneteenth

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy has signed a bill prohibiting landlords from asking prospective renters about whether they have a criminal record, saying he put his name to the measure to celebrate the Juneteenth holiday.

“Today, I am proud to sign the Fair Chance in Housing Act into law and work to level what has been for too long an uneven playing field when it comes to access to housing,” the Democratic governor said in a statement on Friday, calling the bill “nation-leading legislation.” 

As we commemorate Juneteenth, we must commit to both remembering the past and continuing to take action to ensure communities of color, especially black Americans, achieve the full equity they deserve.

The new law, which takes effect in January, does permit landlords to consider criminal records for registered sex offenders, those convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine in federally assisted housing, and a number of other offenses. However, before running a criminal background check, landlords must make a “conditional offer” to the applicant, which can be withdrawn later.

Proponents of the bill, such as Democratic state Senator Troy Singleton, argued it will “will allow those who have paid their debt to society to move forward with their lives in a productive manner,” especially for non-white residents, who face an incarceration rate some 12 times higher in New Jersey than their white counterparts, according to a 2019 study

Critics of Murphy saw the timing of the bill signing as suspect, however, with some suggesting that linking African Americans to a bill pertaining to criminal records was itself “racist,” despite the governor’s explicit call for racial “equity.”

“Billionaire white banker assumes only black people will benefit from this law,” one detractor wrote.

Taking place annually on June 19 to commemorate the end of chattel slavery in the US, Juneteenth has been officially recognized in most states for some time, but was elevated to a federal holiday earlier this week. The move was controversial for some Republicans, 14 of whom voted against the measure in the House, arguing it was inspired by “identity politics” and would only fuel racial division in the country.

Montana Representative Matt Rosendale, for example, called the bill “an effort by the left to create a day out of whole cloth to celebrate identity politics,” claiming it would make “Critical Race Theory the reigning ideology” in the US. Others suggested the holiday would compete with Independence Day celebrations on July 4.

Local Juneteenth celebrations have been documented for more than 150 years, with the tradition beginning in Galveston, Texas in the 1860s, where the last enslaved blacks learned of their emancipation in the waning days of the Civil War. It has largely remained confined to the American south since, though a number of northern states and cities have recognized the day officially.

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FILE PHOTO: A woman holds a sign during a Juneteenth gathering in Seattle, Washington, June 19, 2020.
‘Living memorial’ or ‘identity politics’? Congress passes bill making Juneteenth federal holiday to mark the end of slavery

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