President Obama’s move to commute prison sentences highlights affordable housing needs of people with criminal records

November 9, 2016
By Jacob Schmidt, NLIHC Policy Intern
Jacob Schmidt, Policy Intern

President Obama and his administration have led the charge in pushing for criminal justice reform and has commuted a total of 872 inmates since 2014. He granted clemency to another 98 inmates at the end of last month and has now commuted more individuals than the past 11 presidents combined. Through these commutations, President Obama has sought to correct some of the harms created by harsh federal laws that require mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses.

While President Obama should be commended for these efforts, the next question we as a nation need to be thinking about is: what housing and supportive services will be available to people exiting prisons and jails to ensure their smooth transition back to society?

Without addressing the housing needs of the reentry population, more and more of these recently released individuals will fall into homelessness.

Katina Smith had her sentence commuted in 2015 and was lucky enough to have a family who had the means to welcome her back home. Katina, who happens to be the mother of Demaryius Thomas, a Pro Bowl wide receiver for the Denver Broncos, said, “If it wasn’t for God and for my son being in the position he’s in and my sister being able to help me, I could have easily been homeless.”

If our country is serious about reducing its prison populations, we must provide formerly incarcerated individuals with housing to act as a stabilizing platform where they can get back on their feet; otherwise, they’ll likely end up back in prison. Affordable housing has been shown to reduce recidivism rates among the reentry population.

Justice-involved individuals face too many barriers in accessing affordable housing. Many public housing authorities (PHAs) bar individuals with criminal records from living in federally-assisted housing. Housing providers may also use unreasonably long lookback periods into applicants’ criminal history, and often neglect to provide opportunities for applicants to show that they’ve rehabilitated and can be good tenants. The use of discretionary policy making disproportionately impact people of color and people with disabilities.

Fortunately, HUD has taken steps to advise landlords, including PHAs, that tenant screening policies imposing blanket bans on people with criminal records likely violate the Fair Housing Act. Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA) has also introduced legislation, the Fair Chance at Housing Act (H.R. 5085), that seeks to reform the way federally-assisted housing providers can screen or evict a household based on criminal history.

As we approach a new Congress and Administration, NLIHC and our partners in the Reentry and Housing Coalition, will continue to raise awareness about the housing needs of people with criminal records. Until we ensure people have a stable and affordable place to call home after leaving incarceration, efforts in reforming our criminal justice system will not be fully realized.

What Will President Trump Mean for Affordable Housing?

With last week’s historic election, Donald J. Trump will become our nation’s 45th President. As he begins his term in office, he will have the support of a Republican-led House and Senate, giving him and his party a significant opportunity to enact their legislative priorities in the 115th Congress.

The threats to federal affordable housing programs are real and significant. It is now more important than ever for NLIHC and our partners to continue to advocate for the extremely low income families in our communities and to ensure that their voices are heard.

To learn more about what to expect and how you make a difference, RSVP for NLIHC’s upcoming election webinar on Friday, December 2, 1 pm ET. In the meantime, below is our take on what the election means for affordable housing.

The FY17 Budget
Before the end of President Obama’s term in office, Congress will need to decide whether to enact its Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 appropriations bills—including spending on affordable housing and community development—or pass another short-term stopgap spending measure known as a Continuing Resolution (CR).

If the Republican-led Congress decides to pass a CR through next spring or longer, investments in vital programs at HUD and USDA will be at risk. The next Congress could revise FY17 spending bills to add deep funding cuts. As a result, thousands of families and children could lose access to stable housing, putting them at increased risk of homelessness. For more information on the risk of a long-term CR, go here.

Next Year’s Spending Bills
In President Trump’s first 100 days, he and Congress will face two legislative hurdles that directly impact federal spending on affordable housing: sequestration and the debt ceiling.

When the Budget Control Act of 2011 was signed into law, it set in motion very low spending caps, limiting federal funding for defense and non-defense discretionary programs. Since then, Congress has reached short-term agreements to increase spending above the caps to avoid sequestration—or across-the-board spending cuts that are triggered when Congress spends more than the caps allow.

Last year, Congress reached an agreement to increase the spending caps for Fiscal FY17 and to suspend the debt ceiling through March 2017. This means that low spending caps and the debt ceiling are slated to return for the FY18 budget.

Under President Obama, Democrats fought hard to ensure parity so that the impact of these spending caps fell equally on defense and non-defense programs. President-elect Trump, however, is committed to eliminating parity by protecting defense programs from any spending caps and putting the full weight of these budget limitations on non-defense programs. Moreover, he proposed cutting non-defense spending by an additional 1% each year for the next 10 years—a proposal that could decimate HUD and USDA programs and likely increase housing poverty and homelessness.

NLIHC and our partners will need to protect affordable housing resources from deep, crippling funding cuts.

Fair Housing Under Attack
We expect that dismantling fair housing regulations will be at the top of Congress’ and the new Administration’s priorities. This includes preventing HUD from implementing its Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule, which is designed to provide state and local governments with the guidance and tools they need to better address fair housing barriers and to help ensure federal funds are more fairly and effectively invested in communities across America.

In the last few years, conservative lawmakers in both the House and Senate have moved to prevent HUD from implementing its rule, lambasting it as an example of federal overreach into local decision making. The Republican party platform criticized the rule as “social engineering” and claimed it had “nothing to do with proven or alleged discrimination and everything to do with hostility to the self-government of citizens.”

While on the campaign trail, President-elect Trump indicated that, if elected, he would rescind the AFFH rule. It is possible that the Trump Administration will also try to roll back recent HUD fair housing guidance on the use of criminal records by landlords, and the enforcement of local nuisance and crime-free ordinances.

Recent progress made by the Obama administration in achieving the goals of the Fair Housing Act is at risk.

Threats to the Housing Trust Fund
The national Housing Trust Fund is the first new affordable housing tool in a generation. It is exclusively focused on making housing affordable for families with the greatest, clearest needs—those with extremely low incomes. With a Republican-led Congress and White House, however, the future of the HTF may be at risk. It faces threats from all sides.

President-elect Trump will soon appoint the next director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA). FHFA oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two government-sponsored entities (GSEs) under conservatorship that fund the HTF through a modest fee on their activity. The next director has broad authority to stop payments to the HTF, essentially eliminating funding for the program.

More than eight years after the financial crisis, policy makers are still grappling with how to reform the GSEs. While there has been little focus on comprehensive housing finance reform in 2016, Congress will have to address this issue in some before the GSEs officially run out of capital by January 1, 2018.

While most agree that the government should play some role in a new housing finance system, others would like to privatize it and phase out Fannie and Freddie. Conservative legislators may be emboldened by the election results to renew legislative efforts to phase out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. As part of this wind-down, the authorization for the HTF, as well as the Capital Magnet Fund, could be repealed. Other lawmakers may try to push legislation to directly defund the HTF so long as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac remain under their current conservatorship.

Even if Congress does not enact comprehensive housing finance reform legislation, the HTF could be at risk of the GSEs need a draw of cash from the Department of the Treasury. Because the terms of their conservatorship sweep profits to Treasury, instead of allowing them to be retained as operating capital, the likelihood of a draw is all but inevitable.

Finally, the HTF faces threats through the budget process. As mentioned above, Congress is likely to propose deep cuts to non-defense discretionary spending, including funding for housing and community development. Under intense budget pressure, Congress may look to use funding for the HTF to plug holes in HUD’s budget.

Threats to Public Housing
We may see a return of a harmful Senate proposal to convert all public housing into housing vouchers, as discussed at a recent Appropriations Committee hearing.

NLIHC strongly opposes this proposal. Public housing is home to more than 1.1 million households and plays a critical role in providing safe, decent housing to families with the greatest needs. Research shows that the vast majority of the more than 2 million people who live in public housing want to see it improved and expanded, not eliminated. Moreover, NLIHC’s recent report, Spotlight on Housing: A Long Wait for Home, found high demand for public housing. In fact, the average waitlist for public housing is about 9 months. Among the largest public housing authorities, the waitlist is longer than 2 years. In many cities, the waiting list is so long that has been closed for years.

Converting public housing into vouchers would result in a significant loss to low income families, local communities, and the federal government. In the new Congress, NLIHC will continue to monitor and oppose similar proposals, as well as other legislation harmful to public housing residents.

Anti-Poverty Legislation
With a Republican-led Congress and White House, there is an opportunity for the party to enact anti-poverty legislation based on Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) A Better Way agenda. NLIHC welcomes a national conversation on solutions to end poverty, and we are hopeful that there are some issues that NLIHC could work collaboratively with Congress and the administration on.

This includes efforts to increase mobility among families with Housing Choice Vouchers. Increasing the supply of affordable housing and rental assistance—especially in areas connected to good schools, well-paying jobs, healthcare, and transportation—helps families climb the economic ladder and leads to greater economic and community development. This may be an area where NLIHC and the administration can work together.

The A Better Way agenda includes several harmful proposals that could negatively impact families in need of affordable housing. The agenda proposes that ‘work-capable’ residents of HUD’s major housing programs be required to seek and retain employment, and that local jurisdictions administering housing programs be given the authority to implement educational training and time limits for assistance.

Defending the Housing Credit Under Tax Reform
The Low Income Housing Tax Credit (Housing Credit) faces greater risks and opportunities in the next term. President-elect Trump and his Republican Congress are committed to comprehensive tax reform in his first 100 days in office. Trump has proposed to lower the corporate tax rate from 35% to 15% and provide the largest tax cuts since the 1980s. In order to offset lost revenue, however, Congress would need to eliminate most tax expenditures. While Trump has not specifically mentioned the Housing Credit, the program could be at risk of significant cuts and even elimination. Moreover, reducing the corporate rate could negatively impact investor interest in the Housing Credit, since they would have less tax liability to offset.

On the other hand, there may be an opportunity to expand the Housing Credit in an infrastructure investment package. There is also a greater opportunity to enact reforms to the Housing Credit, including those in S.3237, introduced by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA). NLIHC strongly supports S.3237 because it includes reforms to help ensure that the Housing Credit can better serve families with the greatest, clearest needs—homeless individuals and families, extremely low income seniors, families with children, people with disabilities, and Native American and rural communities.

Glimmers of Hope
A large-scale investment in infrastructure provides NLIHC and other housing advocates an opportunity to work with the Trump administration to expand affordable housing resources. President-elect Trump has proposed investing more than $550 billion in our nation’s infrastructure in order to spur economic growth, create new jobs, and increase wages for American workers. It is important that the administration understand why an investment in housing infrastructure should be a priority.

Investing in affordable housing infrastructure—through new construction and preservation—bolsters productivity and economic growth, provides a long-term asset that connects low income families to communities of opportunity and economic mobility, and supports local job creation and increased incomes.

NLIHC will work to ensure that any infrastructure spending package includes resources to expand the Housing Trust Fund, rehabilitate public housing, increase availability of Housing Choice Vouchers, among other critical investments.

Over the next four years, NLIHC and other affordable housing advocates will continue to do what we’ve always done: advocate for extremely low income families.

We need your help. We need your passion, your focus, your support, and your engagement to help us fight to protect and defend the critical resources that families and communities need to thrive.

Please consider becoming a member of NLIHC or making a donation to help us continue our work to amplify the voices of the poorest families in need.


Housing and the Election Webinar: 5 Ways You Can Take Action

By Sarah Mickelson, NLIHC Director of Public Policy

Over the next few months, affordable housing and community development organizations have an opportunity to influence a number of critical issues before Congress and to help break through the noise of the presidential campaigns to make affordable housing an election issue.

Join us for a discussion with NLIHC staff on our Summer/Fall Issues Guide and Sample Candidate Questionnaire. On the webinar, we’ll review five ways you can take action between now and the November elections to advocate for the issues that are most important to your mission, the people you serve, and your community.

Speakers include:

  • Sarah Mickelson, Public Policy Director
  • Elayne Weiss, Senior Policy Analyst
  • Joseph Lindstrom, Senior Organizer for Housing Advocacy

For more information and best practices on how nonprofit organizations and individuals can lobby their elected officials, see Lobbying: Individual and 501(c)(3) Organizations in NLIHC’s 2016 Advocates’ Guide.

The Housing & the Election webinar was presented on September 7 and can be viewed here: 


The National Housing Trust Fund: Making Sure it Meets the Greatest Needs

By Andrew Aurand, NLIHC Vice President for Research and Dan Emmanuel, NLIHC Research Analyst

nhtf_logo_webThe National Low Income Housing Coalition’s most recent Gap report indicates a national shortage of more than seven million affordable homes available to extremely low income (ELI) renter households, those with income of no more than 30% of their area median income (AMI). Unable to find affordable housing, ELI renters account for 7.8 million or 68% of the nation’s 11.4 million renter households who spend more than half of their income on housing. Meanwhile, fewer than half of new rental homes supported by federal housing subsidies on which developers most often rely – including the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), HOME Investment Partnerships Program (HOME), and the Federal Home Loan Bank’s Affordable Housing Program (AHP) – reach these households.

This year marks the first distribution of money from the national Housing Trust Fund (HTF), a program created to focus specifically on the housing needs of the lowest income renters. Funded by mandated contributions from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, at least 90% of HTF funds must be used for rental housing and at least 75% of funds for rental housing must benefit ELI households. All HTF money must benefit ELI households while the HTF is capitalized under $1 billion a year. The first year’s distribution of $174 million is small in comparison to the need, but is an important step forward in helping the nation’s lowest income renters find affordable housing. Successful implementation of the program in its first year will ensure in the future that the HTF truly serves the population it was intended to serve to the greatest extent possible.

A potential challenge that state advocates and other stakeholders are working to address is the possibility that renters whose income is at 30% of AMI may be cost burdened, spending more than 30% of their income on housing, even if they live in an HTF supported rental home. The Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 modified the definition of ELI for the national HTF to include households whose income is no greater than the federal poverty guideline or 30% of AMI, whichever is higher.[1] The change broadened eligibility for the HTF to households who live in poverty, but whose income is greater than 30% of AMI. HUD’s HTF interim rule went a step further and applied the same criteria to set maximum rents at 30% of either the federal poverty guideline or 30% of AMI, whichever is higher. Wherever the federal poverty guideline is higher, renters with household income at 30% of AMI will be cost burdened by the maximum rent.

Table 1 shows the HTF maximum rent standard by apartment size across metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties.[2] Maximum rents are set at 30% of the federal poverty guideline in 61% and 92% of counties for one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments, respectively. The vast majority of metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties alike have maximum rents based on the federal poverty guideline for apartments larger than one bedroom.

Table 1: Distribution of HTF Maximum Rent Standards by County and Size

All U.S. Countiesa(3,147)>

Metropolitan Counties (1,198)

Non-Metropolitan Counties (1,976)


% of Counties with Max. Rents Set at 30% of Area Median Incomeb

% of Counties with Max. Rents Set at 30% of the Federal Poverty Guideline

% of Counties with Max. Rents Set at 30% of Area Median Income*

% of Counties with Max. Rents Set at 30% of the Federal Poverty Guideline

% of Counties with Max. Rents Set at 30% of Area Median Income*

% of Counties with Max. Rents Set at 30% of the Federal Poverty Guideline

0 Bedroom







1 Bedroom







2 Bedroom







3 Bedroom







4 Bedroom







a. Includes county portions in New England, where multiple maximum rents can exist within the same county.

b. Includes counties where rents at 30% of 30% of AMI or 30% of federal poverty guideline are equal.


To illustrate the challenge, we calculated the potential cost burden for a 3-person family with income at 30% of AMI in each county at the maximum HTF rent for a two-bedroom apartment. They are available at In the median county where the maximum rent is based on the federal poverty guideline, a family of this size and income could spend 38.3% of their income on rent. In the worst cases, it would be 52.1%. The poorest counties, where the federal poverty guideline is much higher than 30% of AMI, will have the highest potential cost burdens. Cost burdened households have difficulty affording other basic necessities such as food, transportation, and health care and are at greater risk of housing instability if they experience a sudden financial crisis.

Table 2 presents a sample budget for a 3-person family with income at 30% of AMI in Orange County, FL. A two-bedroom apartment priced at the maximum HTF rent, based on the federal poverty guideline, would take 38.3% of the family’s income. Even after receiving the maximum benefit from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the family would be unable to meet all of their expenses without additional assistance.

Table 2: Sample Monthly Budgets for Family of 3 in Orange County, FL

Monthly Income

Maximum SNAP Benefit for Family of 3

HTF Maximum Rent for 2BR Unit

Cost of Food on USDA Thrifty Plan*

Cost of Transportation**

Cost of Health Care ***

Income Remaining for All Other Expenses

3 Person Household at 30% AMI








*Based on USDA Thrifty Food Plan estimates in May 2016 for a single female head of household between the ages of 19-50 with two children aged 6-8.

**Cost of transportation for family of 3 (1 adult, 2 children) in Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL MSA retrieved from Economic Policy Institute Family Budget Calculator (2015).

*** Cost of health care for family of 3 (1 adult, 2 children) in Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL MSA retrieved from Economic Policy Institute Family Budget Calculator (2015).

The national HTF is an important new resource in addressing the housing needs of the nation’s poorest renters. While rents affordable to households at 30%, 20%, or even 15% of AMI are challenging to achieve given development and operating costs, developers and stakeholders across the country are finding creative ways achieve them. NLIHC organized a webinar that recently attracted almost 1,000 registrants to discuss how to finance and operate ELI housing. We encourage advocates to use these and other tools to continue pressing to reward rents targeted to the lowest income households in their states HTF allocation plans. In these ways, we can assure that the national HTF meets the needs of the lowest income renters.

[1] This definition for ELI was applied to other HUD programs in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014.

[2] Includes county portions in New England, where multiple maximum rents can exist within the same county.

Ten Percent of Students at California State University Face Homelessness

deltion-college-1310596_1920By Isaac Harris, NLIHC Outreach Intern

Approximately 10% of the 460,000 students in the California State University (CSU) system experience homelessness, according to “Serving Displaced and Food Insecure Students in the CSU,” a study published in January by researchers at CSU Long Beach under the direction of Dr. Rashida Crutchfield. The study sheds light on an issue that remains largely unreported and unaddressed in the nation’s public universities. The report also found that between 21% and 24% of students experience food insecurity.

Facing uncertainty in their living conditions, students afflicted by homelessness reported managing incredible stress while having to balance the demands of schoolwork. “I feel like once I get my Bachelor’s under my belt, I can just keep moving forward. Inside I think I’m falling apart,” said one respondent quoted in the report. Students considered homeless in the study included those who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence, as defined by the McKinney-Vento Act, and those who were “doubled-up” or living as a temporary guest in another’s home.

Schools have only begun to address the issue, and just one CSU campus out of 23 has a program to support all students experiencing housing instability. About half of all faculty and staff surveyed said they needed more information about how to appropriately support students facing homelessness and food insecurity. A lack of information can have direct consequences for affected students—one respondent disclosed to residential staff that she had nowhere to stay when the dorms closed, but was told that it would be “unfair” for her to remain there once all the students left. Only Chico State University provides campus housing to foster youth during holiday breaks.

According to the survey, local cost of living and limited dorm availability were the main challenges to students without fixed and regular housing. Thus, off-campus housing development efforts and policy changes will play an important role in serving their needs.

The Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act of 2016 (S. 3237), a bill that would expand and reform the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (Housing Credit), includes a provision that would qualify homeless students and foster youth for housing built under the tax credit. When the Housing Credit was created, legislators excluded most students from qualifying for program housing so that funding would not be used to construct dormitories. S. 3237 would broaden the list of exceptions to this rule, allowing for current or former foster care students, unaccompanied or homeless youth or emancipated minors. The bipartisan bill was introduced July 14 by Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT).

In California, there are over 281,000 apartments financed with Housing Credits that are dedicated to low income families. Baring homeless students from accessing this critical source of housing only makes the problem worse by making it more difficult for these students to pursue academic opportunities.

Community Housing Partnership (CHP), a San Francisco-based supportive housing developer and National Low Income Housing Coalition member, has led an awareness campaign to highlight the legal restrictions facing formerly homeless youth in Housing Credit-financed housing. Michael, who lives in one of CHP’s youth residences, realized he had to choose between attending college full-time and remaining in his apartment. “I felt very disappointed. As a part-time student, I wasn’t eligible for the financial aid I needed, and realized it would take me over ten years to finish,” he said.

Efforts to expand student eligibility for Housing Credit housing have been the focus of numerous pieces of legislation over the past decade. Last year, Senators Al Franken (D-MN) and Rob Portman (R-OH) introduced the Housing for Homeless Students Act of 2015 (S. 1412), which proposed modifying the program’s rules to qualify homeless and formerly homeless full-time students for subsidized housing. The Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act of 2016 builds on these efforts and further expands student eligibility. Under these proposals, homeless students would gain access to affordable housing, while current occupants of Housing Credit developments would gain access to greater educational opportunities.

Click here to find contact information for your Senators. Contact them to urge support of S. 3237.

S.3237 is located here:

If you have questions, please feel free to contact Joey Lindstrom at