Paper Reviews Recidivism Research to Help Housing Providers with Admissions Policies

A paper published in Housing Policy Debate by Rebecca J. Walter, Jill Viglione and Marie Skubak Tillyer, One Strike to Second Chances: Using Criminal Backgrounds in Admission Decisions for Assisted Housing, reviews existing research on recidivism to provide fact-based information to housing providers on their use of criminal records in assisted housing admission decisions. The paper is timely given HUD’s recent guidance that the use of blanket policies to reject potential tenants based on their criminal history likely violates the Fair Housing Act (See Memo, 4/11/16). The authors note that the available research indicates that one’s criminal history does not predict housing retention success.

The authors’ intention is to help housing providers develop effective admission policies related to criminal histories. They note that recidivism rates are often overstated because high-risk offenders who repeatedly return to prison are overrepresented, and low-risk offenders who do not re-offend are underrepresented in many studies because repeat offenders make up a larger share of released prisoners. The authors urge housing providers not to consider an applicant’s criminal history if it is more than seven years old. “Research demonstrates… there is little difference in the risk of offending between those who have never been arrested and those whose last offense was seven years ago,” the authors state. At the same time, a short lookback period of only a year or two might only cover the time while an offender was in jail, which does not give adequate time for the offender to demonstrate appropriate behavior once released. Any lookback period should serve as a maximum timeframe for housing provider consideration, and providers should not automatically deny an applicant based on a conviction within the lookback period without considering other factors.

Housing providers should consider the type of crime committed and other factors. The risk of committing an offense decline with age, although drug and alcohol-related offenses do not decline as sharply with age as other crime types. Applicants with a property crime conviction in their early twenties, for example, are less likely to be repeat offenders than applicants with a drug-related conviction. Therefore, the authors suggest that housing providers consider whether an applicant has completed a treatment program for drug or alcohol abuse. Other individual factors that housing providers should consider during the admissions process are family ties, employment, and references or letters of support that demonstrate an applicant’s character and commitment to reform. Housing providers could also consider how admission may support an applicant’s familial ties and relationships that reduce the risk of recidivism.

The authors recommend housing providers develop evaluation plans to monitor their admission policies regarding an applicant’s criminal history. Providers should monitor complaints, property disturbances, and crime trends after changes to their admissions policies. Crime should be measured at properties over time, which is different than tracking whether a resident with a criminal record commits a crime. “Not all recidivism impacts the public safety of other residents,” the authors state. Shoplifting, for example, does not directly impact neighbors. If crime does increase at a property, the provider must then determine if the cause could be their admissions policy or other factors.

The authors note that private housing providers often are not required to include consideration of an applicant’s criminal history in their admission process. Public housing authorities (PHAs), however, must consider criminal histories in their admissions process because of HUD’s lifetime ban on individuals who have manufactured methamphetamine in federally assisted housing and sex offenders on lifetime sex offender state registries.

One Strike to Second Chances: Using Criminal Backgrounds in Admission Decisions for Assisted Housing is available at: