By Monique Blossom, Policy Analyst, Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center
Advocates across Louisiana have been working for a decade to create a more inclusive process for individuals involved in the criminal legal system who are applying for housing.
The “Fair Housing Act” does not explicitly address people with criminal records, but as 2016 HUD guidance clearly states, some criminal background screening practices create a “discriminatory effect,” while others may result in “disparate treatment,” specifically for Black and Latino renters. The Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center (LaFHAC) partnered with national groups urging HUD to issue this guidance, and it has been the touchstone in all our local and state advocacy around this issue ever since.
The United States has the largest prison population in the world by far, leaving nearly one-third of the nation’s entire population with some sort of criminal background. Black and Latino people are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and incarcerated, making criminal records-based barriers to housing more likely to have a disproportionate impact on Black and Brown renters.
In Louisiana, 49% of adults have a criminal record. Fair housing protections are extremely important if almost half of the state’s adult population might be denied affordable housing opportunities, especially given that records can be decades old.
In 2013, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) recognized a need to change its criminal background screening policies because Black men were disproportionately affected by total bans from housing assistance. LaFHAC joined criminal justice reform organizations like the Vera Institute of Justice, Voice of the Experienced, Stand with Dignity, and many others to advocate for HANO to make sweeping changes to its background screening process. As a result of this advocacy, HANO established a new policy in 2016 that does not consider low-level offenses and creates a process where people with convictions are reviewed on an individual basis. HANO was one of the first public housing authorities to take such a step, and the policy has been wildly successful since its initial implementation: denials of housing have been reduced to just a handful of applicants in the past six years. Following this win, advocates were also successful in convincing the City of New Orleans in 2022 to require any affordable housing developer it works with to implement a similar policy.
At the state level, advocates and people with criminal records succeeded in pushing the Louisiana Housing Corporation (LHC) to pass an inclusive criminal background screening policy in 2021. The LHC is the state’s housing finance agency, and its new policy passed without opposition. The protection applies to roughly 60,000 affordable homes across Louisiana, as well as new units moving forward.
Advocates in Louisiana continue to push for greater protections across the state for all properties. State Representative Matthew Willard filed a bill to create the “Fair Chance in Housing Act” in the spring of 2022. The legislation would have extended protections like those included in the LHC policy to applicants for market-rate rentals. After opposition from landlord lobbyists, the bill was amended to require only that housing providers notify applicants that they could provide additional context or mitigating circumstances about a criminal record with their application. In the state Senate committee where the bill eventually died, Representative Willard explained that “a lot of the housing application forms essentially screened formerly incarcerated people out of the housing process. And what that does, really, is it exacerbates our homeless population.”
The Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center continues to partner with StepUp Louisiana and other partners to push for passage of this bill to ensure that criminal backgrounds are not barriers to safe housing and that those returning home from incarceration receive equal opportunity to secure housing and rebuild their lives.