Public Housing Authorities Need Better Guidance on Dealing with Criminal Records

Improving access to stable housing is critical to supporting successful reentry of the formerly incarcerated. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development needs to provide stronger guidance to help minimize exclusions of those with criminal records from public housing.

April 22, 2013

Mass incarceration reverberates far beyond prison walls. The collateral consequences of arrests and criminal convictions include barriers to housing, employment, and even the right to vote and participate in civic life. These barriers prevent people from fully contributing to society and to the economy, and inhibit them from living with and caring for their families.

Fortunately, the federal government recognizes that post-incarceration obstacles that discourage re-entry should be removed.  For example, in 2012, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued landmark guidance regarding criminal convictions and employment, ruling that a blanket ban against considering job applicants with criminal records violates the Civil Rights Act.

Unfortunately, the federal government has not acted as clearly to address another such obstacle: access to public housing.

A new report from the Formerly Incarcerated & Convicted People’s Movement, an advocacy group that works on the restoration of civil rights after criminal convictions, highlights this problem. The report urges the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to follow the EEOC’s example and issue more specific guidance to local public housing authorities to prevent them from discriminating against people with criminal records, as well as their families.

As the report explains, the social stigma of having been in prison or having a conviction makes re-entry into society difficult. These difficulties are compounded by policies that allow institutions to exclude people with criminal records. In the area of public housing, the impact of these policies on whole families and communities is particularly visible and devastating.

Overly broad local eviction policies have resulted, for example, in the eviction of an elderly woman in California for a grandchild’s possession of illegal drugs. In New York, a son attempting to take over his mother’s lease after her death was denied housing because he pled guilty to a misdemeanor drug charge, for which he received a six month suspension of his license. Despite explaining that he and his daughter would be homeless if the New York City Housing Authority ruled against them, his application was denied.

Such collateral consequences are far out of proportion to the original crime and punishment.  And such practices hurt the American economy by pushing individuals and families into unemployment and homelessness, while increasing their likelihood of further involvement with the criminal justice system.

Local housing agencies and advocates must take proactive steps to address this problem. The Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) and the Vera Institute of Justice offer a promising model. They are collaborating on a new criminal background check policy for housing and employment that seeks to remove obstacles ex-felons face when re-entering society. In making decisions about admissions to public housing, and about employment, HANO will assess each conviction based on its nature and gravity, and the amount of time that has elapsed since the conviction, among other factors.

The Obama Administration has committed to preventing recidivism through community reentry programs.  As Attorney General Eric Holder has stated, “Reentry provides a major opportunity to reduce recidivism, save taxpayer dollars, and make our communities safer.”

Improving access to stable housing is critical to supporting successful reentry, and strengthening marginalized communities. HUD should make good on the administration’s commitment by providing stronger guidance at the federal level to help stem the tide of overbroad evictions and exclusions of those with criminal records from public housing.

Photo by Zol87.