For over a year, three minor criminal offenses have kept Ms. K – a single working woman with mental health disabilities – out of housing that would otherwise bring her closer to both her daughter and free transportation to work. Considering that her most recent offense – theft of a library book – took place over four years ago, it is no wonder that Ms. K’s employer entrusts her to handle confidential financial documents. And yet, her criminal record remains a relentless obstacle to federally subsidized housing.
To help people like Ms. K, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has taken the first steps toward what advocates hope will be a long-term plan to increase housing access for people with criminal records. In two letters issued over the past year (one last June and the other last month), HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan reminded public housing authorities and project owners of the discretion they have to admit people with criminal records in the federally subsidized housing programs. Contrary to popular belief, a person is not barred from these programs simply because of a past criminal record. Rather, as Secretary Donovan recognized, “people who have paid their debt to society deserve the opportunity to become productive citizens and caring parents, to set the past aside and embrace the future.”
These reminders are sorely needed, as the Shriver Center’s “When Discretion Means Denial” report has shown. For example, more than half of the written admissions policies in Illinois gloss over the fact that applicants could—and in some cases, have the right to—present mitigating circumstances after being denied based on criminal history. Additionally, PHAs and project owners do not consistently follow HUD regulations requiring them to consider the time and nature of a public housing applicant’s conduct.
Noting that upwards of seven and half a million people leave prisons or jails in the United States each year, Secretary Donovan acknowledged that many intend to return to their families, some of whom reside in federally subsidized housing. Policies that ban people with criminal records from these housing programs not only prevent family reunification, but they also put people at greater risk of recidivating, thus straining the community.
To prevent these results, Secretary Donovan urged PHAs and project owners to engage in thoughtful consideration of various factors. In particular, he noted, these housing providers should “seek a balance between allowing ex-offenders to reunite with families that live in HUD subsidized housing, and ensuring the safety of all residents.”
To make this type of balancing a reality, however, HUD needs more than a strongly worded letter. HUD should take active steps to ensure that discretion does not become synonymous with denial. For instance, PHAs and project owners need specific guidance on the limited value of relying on arrest records or unreasonably long look-back periods. This is especially important considering the significant risk that use of these screening devices violates the Fair Housing Act because of their disparate impact on minority applicants. Without additional affirmative steps, hard-working people like Ms. K will not be able to access the housing they need to pull themselves away from their past and out of poverty.
This post was coauthored by Shannon Flaherty.