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HUD Excludes People With Convictions From Public Housing. Local Solutions Can Help.

Back Yard, ROSHAN ABRAHAM   APRIL 13, 2023

Policy changes by local public housing authorities can be transformative for Americans with convictions, and for their families.

The housing crisis is particularly acute for the 79 million Americans with a criminal record: People with convictions are nearly 10 times more likely to experience homelessness compared to the general public. While federally subsidized housing could provide support to these individuals, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) contributes to the problem by permitting each public housing authority (PHA) wide leeway to discriminate against people with convictions.

But some advocates have successfully gotten their local PHAs to change course: A 2016 policy change in New Orleans has been able to open up public housing for people with convictions by providing a clearer rubric for PHAs to use during screenings and appointing a board to review applications.

Barring sweeping federal rule changes, this local approach is the only one open to advocates. In February, Prison Policy Initiative published a report titled “How Your Local Public Housing Authority Can Reduce Barriers For People With Criminal Records.” The report advocates for interrogating local PHAs to see how they are interpreting federal guidelines and what their rubric is.

Some of these restrictions are the result of congressional legislation. But the executive branch plays a role: HUD has failed to limit lookback periods, provide strict guidance on screenings, or challenge PHAs that overstep their authority. 

“My guess is that these restrictions on people with criminal records apply to a huge portion of people who are applying for public housing,” says Prison Policy Initiative spokeswoman Wanda Bertram. “In practice … people are not getting automatically denied because of any kind of criminal record. But public housing authorities attempt to winnow out some portion of the applicant population.”

The median income for formerly incarcerated people is $10,090 a year, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, which means many meet the income threshold for public housing. Criminal history is not a protected category under the Fair Housing Act, although HUD has more recently argued that because of racially disproportionate incarceration rates it can act as a proxy for race (which is a protected category). 

Attorney-activist Bruce Reilly was instrumental in pushing New Orleans’ housing authority to change its screening policies in 2013. Reilly, who served a more than 10-year prison sentence and was released on parole in 2005, is the deputy director of Voters Organized to Educate and is a founding member of Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People and Families Movement.

Reilly first came across the issue while offering counsel to fellow incarcerated people by making use of his prison’s law library. As he helped people file appeals and prepare for life on the outside, he learned that some people weren’t able to move back in with their family in public housing as a result of their convictions. 

“They couldn’t go back and live where they used to live with their kids, their mom,” Reilly remembers. “That’s what sent me off to this structural issue that nobody was talking about. I wasn’t really in a position to do anything about it at the time.”

When Reilly left prison, he collaborated with researchers at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law to look into the issue. He helped assemble a report while he was a Tulane University law student, looking at the disparate impact of exclusionary housing policies. After law school, he helped lead a three-year campaign, along with Voice of the Ex-Offender (now called Voice of the Experienced) and Stand with Dignity, changing the screening policies of the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO). 

At the time, HANO had a seven-year lookback period for all felonies. While this resulted in rejected applications, Reilly says, “the biggest thing was people getting evicted and … that applying to the whole family.” The lookbacks left Louisiana residents particularly vulnerable: 49 percent of adults in Louisiana have a criminal record.

In early 2013, HANO agreed to change its policies, stating it would no longer exclude people solely for having a criminal record, but still leaving room to exclude people for safety reasons. Those changes didn’t go into effect until 2016, when the agency clarified the screening criteria it would use. 

The agency decided to put the decision before a panel, which looks at an applicant’s overall history. The policy also gives each applicant the right to appeal.

The result is that more people with convictions are able to live with family members, Reilly says. Before the policy change, he says, “You had HANO police running around trying to stop people from even visiting family because they got a drug arrest.”

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