By Elayne Weiss, Policy Analyst at NLIHC
There’s no way around it: the United States incarcerates its people at an outrageous rate. For every 100,000 people, there are 716 in jail or prison. Although we represent just over 4% of the world’s population, we “house” almost 25% of the world’s total prison population. In fact, the FBI estimates that as many as one in three Americans has a criminal record.
Throughout America’s incarceration binge, created largely by overly harsh mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders, costs for constructing and maintaining prisons and jails have voraciously eaten up state and federal budgets—money that could have been spent elsewhere: on education, on health, on housing. Families, disproportionately minority, have been torn apart.
And even after people have served their time and try to return to their families and communities, they often face insurmountable barriers that jeopardize their opportunity to make the most of their second chance.
Finding a place to call home poses a particular challenge for justice-involved people since housing providers, including public housing authorities (PHAs) and owners of federally-assisted housing, have broad discretion in screening out applicants with criminal records or precluding them from rejoining their families. When this happens, ex-offenders are at risk of becoming homeless or recidivating.
Research suggests that in large urban areas, more than 30% of people will become homeless upon their release from incarceration. Research has also shown that returning inmates who cannot find stable housing are more likely to recidivate than those who do.
We are grateful that HUD has taken bold actions in addressing this problem with recent guidance, but we know there is much more work to be done, especially as Congress considers reforming our criminal justice system, potentially leading to the release of tens of thousands of people, all who will need a place to sleep.
Thankfully, Representative Maxine Waters has introduced landmark legislation that will ensure people with criminal records have meaningful access to federally assisted housing.
The Fair Chance at Housing Act of 2016 would require PHAs and owners of HUD- and USDA-assisted housing to provide applicants and current tenants with an individualized review that looks at the totality of their circumstances before making a decision based on criminal records. When screening or deciding whether to evict a tenant, housing providers would be limited in considering criminal activity that threatens “the health, safety or right of peaceful enjoyment of others” or violent activity that happens off the premises and poses future harm to others living or working in the property.
The bill would also require housing providers to provide written notice of their screening policies and the reason why an applicant was denied housing. Right now, many housing providers don’t post their policies in readily accessible locations, and some fail to disclose what underlying criminal record caused an applicant to be screened out.
Housing providers would be unable to deny admission to applicants based solely on certain situations, such as an eviction for past criminal activity or a juvenile adjudication or conviction, and they would be prohibited from conducting suspicionless drug or alcohol testing of applicants or tenants.
PHAs would no longer be able to rescreen families who are already receiving some form of housing assistance. HUD can provide additional administrative fees to those PHAs that serve people who have exited jails or prisons.
We applaud Ms. Waters for her leadership in advocating for those who are too easy to dismiss. While we know our country must address its shortage of affordable housing—currently 7.2 million for extremely low income families—to get to the root of this problem, Ms. Waters’ bill is an important step forward in making sure former inmates successfully rejoin their families and communities.