New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy on Friday signed into law a measure that would eliminate criminal conviction questions on rental applications, a move housing advocates are hailing as the most sweeping legislation of its kind in the country. 

Under the law, landlords would no longer be allowed to run a criminal background check until after they’ve conditionally approved a potential renter—no longer allowing automatic denials of formerly incarcerated people. 

“They stand a better chance of getting the housing,” said James William, director of racial justice policy for the Fair Share Housing Center. “The barriers to life are higher for them, but we're asking them to commit to everything else that everybody else does, but they don't have the same access as everybody else.”  

The bill received bipartisan approval in the Senate and Assembly and is even supported by the New Jersey Apartment Association, which represents thousands of landlords. Williams says the Fair Chance in Housing law will eliminate one of the many obstacles facing people released from prison and help reduce recidivism rates. 

Landlords can ask an applicant if they are registered for life on the sex offender registry or whether they’ve been convicted of manufacturing meth in federal housing but otherwise can’t run a background check until after they making a conditional offer. Convictions for crimes like murder or aggravated sexual assault can be grounds for denial. The law, however, says landlords can withdraw their approvals for renters who were convicted of crimes only within a limited time frame and must provide a written explanation and offer a chance for appeal. 

“This ban-the-box move, it allows for someone to look at the merit of the person, so if I know I can make my rent and I have a safe place to sleep, I’m good,” said Walter Herres, who was homeless for several years after he was repeatedly denied housing due to his criminal record. Herres now runs the nonprofit SHILO, Supporting Homeless Innovatively Loving Others.

He said the law would have helped him find stable housing when he first got out of prison. “I was homeless with a daughter, I had to see my child in the park,” he said. 

Advocates said having a place to call home is key for parents, particularly mothers, who leave the prison system and want to win back custody of their children. 

Landlords who break the law can be fined up to $10,000, and rejected renters can file a complaint with the state Attorney General’s Office, which will compile all the complaints and share that data publicly.