REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

HUD Secretary Juliàn Castro says the agency is reconsidering rules that make it difficult for ex-offenders to access public housing.

We often talk about the “three-strikes rules” that came about in the 1990s—“tough on crime” federal laws that remanded people convicted of three felony convictions to life in prison.

Only one strike is needed, in many circumstances, however, to get banned from public housing. The 1998 Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, led to new rules from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on who could and couldn’t receive federal housing assistance. They gave local public housing authorities broad authority in using criminal histories to refuse people admission to public housing. Any sex offender is automatically ineligible; at one point, this included sex workers in Louisiana.  

In San Francisco, an applicant who’s been convicted of violent crimes against people or property will not be considered by the local housing authority. Drug-related crimes can get you banned from receiving vouchers also. In many cities, you can get screened out or evicted just for having a family member with a drug conviction, and then prohibited from re-admission for three years.  

Courts, of course, are far too generous in handing out convictions to African Americans in comparison to other races, especially for drug crimes. And hence, black people are the least sheltered from exclusionary housing policies.

A new report from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights explains the costs of discrimination against the formerly incarcerated: 79 percent of formerly incarcerated people surveyed in the report said they were denied housing or determined ineligible for it; 18 percent of families surveyed had faced eviction, were denied housing, or became disqualified for public housing when an incarcerated family member returned.

(Ella Baker Center for Human Rights)

Which is why human rights activists are asking HUD to get rid of housing bans for people with criminal records. HUD Secretary Julián Castro said his administration is considering doing just that in an interview with Shelterforce reporters Miriam Axel-Lute and Harold Simon:

Miriam Axel-Lute: There was an extensive outreach in a number of those redevelopments, but often there’s been very stringent guidelines for who can come back that screened out a lot of people, such as people who have felony convictions, and that has limited the people who are considered to come back. But those people need somewhere to live. Do you have a perspective on those kind of screening measures and how they should or shouldn’t be employed?

Julián Castro: I believe that HUD has a role to play in the larger conversation about criminal justice reform and ensuring that folks have effective and fair second chances in life. That is an issue that we will be looking at, that we have been looking at, and that we will continue to evaluate and act on at some point in the not-too-distant future. Because just as Congress is having this same conversation in a broader sense about criminal justice reform, we need to have that in the housing context. Did we go overboard in the 1990s with some of the policies? I’m not saying the answer is yes or no right now, but it is definitely worth a re-evaluation.

Harold Simon: Is there an opportunity to, or are you already working with the Justice Department to look at the other ways you could intersect?

Julián Castro: We are working with the Department of Justice on a number of these issues. For instance, we just did a Notice of Funding Availability, regarding the expunction of records for young people who lived in public housing, assisting them under state law, if they’re eligible for an expunction, to be able to do that to get one, looking at some issues related to people getting blocked from housing because of an arrest record versus actually getting convicted. So, we are working together, and I’m confident that we’re going to continue to do that in a fruitful way to reasonably provide opportunity for folks.

I think folks would agree that we have to strike the right balance, because I certainly understand the value of the restrictions that have been put in place and the goal of keeping our housing communities safe. We always have to keep that goal in mind. At the same time, the question is, is there a way that we can effectively achieve that and still afford more opportunity for people to get back on their feet and not confine them to a life of scrapping and inability to ever get on the right track because of overly burdensome regulations?

Previous HUD Sec. Shaun Donovan teased similar reconsideration of public housing rules for former convicts in 2011. Some housing authorities and landlords are headed down this path. Earlier this year, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors relaxed restrictions on people with drug convictions older than two years for public housing assistance.

In New Orleans, a city that’s as much an incarceration destination as it is one for tourists, the housing authority recognized in 2013 that its criminal background policies had a disparate impact on African Americans—which means they could possibly violate the Fair Housing Act. Despite this recognition, the New Orleans housing authority has yet to implement new procedures it developed with fair housing advocates to mitigate those effects. In a conversation with Pres Kabacoff, a private developer of affordable housing in New Orleans, he told Citylab that he developed a “ban the box” policy for his applicants.   

“So, if you’re an applicant with a criminal record, if your housing application is approved, only then do we look at your criminal record and see if the crime you committed makes you a risk,” says Kabacoff.

But even with such relaxed measures, there will still be people released from jail who landlords and housing authorities will reject. Asked where those people should live, Kabacoff said that’s “an issue that only the government can handle.”

(Ella Baker Center for Human Rights)

The Ella Baker report recommends that cities pass local housing ordinances that prohibit discriminating against people with arrest or conviction records. A few examples of this exist in Madison, Wisconsin, and in Belleville, Illinois. Concludes the report:

As we stand today, the United States is paying $80 billion a year to impose penalties and restrict opportunities for individuals and their families at a tremendous cost—a dollar cost that is both apparent and hidden, an emotional cost that is family- and community-wide and intergenerational, and a cost that should ultimately weigh on us all.

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