Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The past 10 years have seen a major drop in the number of people with criminal records rejected by the Oakland Housing Authority.
When Afomeia Tesfai, a research fellow for Human Impact Partners, took a look at the health impacts of public-housing policies on the formerly incarcerated in Oakland, California, she found some good news. Public housing authorities normally have a bad rep for creating policies that make it difficult for those returning from jail to find new, affordable homes. In Oakland, however, former inmates have been finding it a bit easier to get into public housing in recent years, Tesfai found in a new report from the Ella Baker Center.
Looking at the total number of people whose criminal backgrounds were screened by the Oakland Housing Authority (OHA) between 2006 and 2016, the number of people whose applications for public housing were rejected dropped considerably. Between 2006 and 2011, the rejection rate teetered between 6 and 12 percent, due to criminal background checks. Between 2012 and 2015, however, those rejection rates fell mostly below 2 percent. Between 2010 and 2012, the rejection rate dropped precipitously—from 12.2 percent to less than 1 percent, as seen in the chart below.
One big reason for this opening up of housing to ex-offenders is a change in the application process that allows those rejected to appeal decisions due to “mitigating circumstances.” Those circumstances include updated drug-screening and job-performance reports, recommendations from parole or probation officers, and references from family members or clergy. Of the 1,369 people (out of 1,802) who appealed their initial rejections, close to two-thirds were able to have those decisions overturned and were provided housing.
The problem is that applicants were only able to file those appeals once their names moved up a waitlist for available housing units. The Ella Baker report recommends allowing applicants to present such “mitigating circumstances”—like a referral letter from an employer or trade school—at the outset.
“If PHAs allowed mitigating circumstances to be presented in the initial application, we predict it would result in fewer applications denied because of a criminal history and a better-streamlined process,” reads the report. “Considering the stark disproportionality of people of color with a criminal history, we suspect the presentation of mitigating evidence would decrease racial disparities.”
But before getting too happy about the drop in housing rejections, there’s a major caveat: the Oakland Housing Authority did not provide data on all of the applicants with criminal backgrounds—both those accepted and rejected. Meaning that the number of people with criminal records rejected for housing is dropping, but only as a percentage of the total number of people applying for housing. As Tesfai tells Citylab:
If by looking at the total number of applicants who have criminal records and seeing who was rejected, we could understand whether we have a high percentage of people who tend to be denied because of criminal records. But at this point we can’t make that type of conclusion.
OHA also does not track the race and ethnicity of those denied housing, making it difficult to determine whether race played a part in decisions.
Making housing more available to those who’ve been imprisoned has not led to more problems in public housing—in Oakland or nationally, according to the report. Tesfai points to research by Daniel K. Malone from 2009 that found that “the presence of a criminal background did not predict housing failure.”
Other states and cities, like New Orleans, have also been relaxing their guidelines. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released new guidelines in April, stating that more housing providers need to follow this model. The racial discrimination pervading the criminal justice system makes it more likely that those excluded from housing for past convictions will be people of color. This violates the Fair Housing Act, as the federal government has noted.
Placing less emphasis on applicants’ criminal backgrounds will not only result in fewer housing denials, reads the report, but it could also improve public health outcomes. From the report:
The outcomes stemming from having stable and affordable housing are clear: research shows that lack of stable and affordable housing forces families to frequently move and live in unhealthy and crowded environments, increases stress and depression, and can lead to homelessness. Homelessness brings higher rates of infectious diseases; substance use and mental health disorders; exposure to violence; overexposure to cold and rain; and suicide. Studies show that between 25% - 50% of people who are homeless have a history of involvement with the criminal justice system.
Of course, prison itself is a form of public housing, one that leads to increased recidivism and poor health outcomes. “People who have been in prison have higher rates of infectious disease, mental health disorders, chronic conditions, and exposure to traumatic events, which can lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” reads the report. It seems that the best way to help keep people healthy is to help keep them out of jail.