Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Criminal justice reform has housing impacts

by Rebekah King, National Housing Conference

Given the potential for Congress to pass criminal justice reform and release a large number of individuals from prison, housing providers should be thinking through how to respond to this population. Evidence shows that effective planning, services and housing can significantly reduce recidivism for ex-offenders, significantly reduce costs to the justice system and improve outcomes for these individuals. To serve ex-offenders, nonprofits, public housing agencies and landlords need an approach that isn’t overly burdensome or costly, protects existing residents and meets the goal of helping ex-offenders integrate back into society. Quite a tall order, but pilot programs and other strategies being tried could offer helpful models.
  • The Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) board has approved significant changes to its admission rules for ex-offenders. The pending revisions would establish a review panel to assess each application for public housing and Section 8 vouchers individually, weighing each applicant’s background, severity of conviction, rehabilitation efforts since incarcerations and current circumstance. Depending upon the nature of the conviction, officials will either admit the applicant or send their application to a three-member panel for closer review. The policy is pending HUD approval and would also apply to private entities that manage HANO’s housing stock unless they can prove they are not legally obligated to do so.
  • The Oakland Housing Authority has implemented a policy allowing ex-offenders who apply and are rejected to appeal if they can show mitigating circumstances. Applicants can provide updated drug-screening and job-performance reports, recommendations from parole or probation officers and references from family members or clergy. Two-thirds of the applicants who appealed their initial rejections saw those decisions overturned.
These are two examples of programs being implemented, and we hope to share more we learn about other programs.

Given research showing that criminal history does not provide good predictive information about housing success, and the possibility for significant criminal justice reform, exploring how to provide housing to ex-offenders is becoming increasingly important. Because of the negative stereotypes that affordable housing can face in general, serving this specific population can present even greater challenges. However, it also presents an opportunity to explore new ways to build community support and craft positive messages about affordable housing. Please email me with any best practices or models so we can learn more about housing ex-offenders and help inform practitioners.

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