Proven Solutions on Local Victories

The Path Forward: Addressing Obstacles to Housing Upon Reentry

Advocates and leaders with experience returning from incarceration have been working on solutions throughout the country. There have been innovative ideas and successful campaigns to confront many of the harmful policies that prevent returning prisoners from accessing housing. Some examples to consider for your community follows below.


1. “Ban the Box” on Rental Applications

Advocates across the U.S. are advocating for “ban the box” ordinances that prohibit private landlords from unfairly denying applicants housing based on their criminal histories. These policies provide a second chance for people who have been arrested or have served sentences. They support successful reentry, reduce recidivism, and families affected by incarceration. Because blanket housing bans disproportionately impact communities of color, “ban the box” ordinances advance racial and economic justice.

Many enacted “ban the box” ordinances allow landlords to consider an applicant’s criminal history only after the landlord has determined that the candidate meets other qualifications. For example, the Detroit City Council voted unanimously to pass the “Fair Chance Housing Ordinance” in February 2019, which bans landlords from asking potential tenants about their criminal background in the initial phases of the application process. Seattle’s “Fair Chance Housing Ordinance,” which went into effect in February 2018, does not allow landlords to consider criminal histories at all. A conservative legal group has filed a lawsuit against Seattle’s ordinance, arguing it violates landlords’ constitutional rights. The case is currently before the Washington Supreme Court.

Other cities that have passed “ban the box” ordinances include Chicago, IL; San Francisco, CA; Newark, NJ; Kansas City, MO; and Washington, DC.

2. Reforming HUD Screening Policies

Much of HUD’s guidance to PHAs and property owners on screening applicants for federally assisted housing is optional. As a result, PHAs and owners often develop their own screening criteria that prevent people with criminal records from accessing federal housing assistance. 

It is important for advocates to remember that PHAs are federally funded but locally governed by appointees of mayors or county executives. Direct advocacy to local leaders can ensure PHAs adopt improved screening procedures. New Orleans is a great example. After a three-year process engaging with residents and advocates pushing for change, the Housing Authority of New Orleans established new screening procedures that included a review panel for applicants with prior convictions. 

To reduce barriers, HUD should provide specific guidance on reasonable lookback periods, limit the criminal activity providers can use to determine eligibility, and require housing providers to consider the entire circumstances of an applicant’s history. Such changes would increase opportunities for returning citizens to reconnect with their families and communities.

The “Fair Chance at Housing Act of 2019,” introduced by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), would expand access to stable and affordable housing for people with criminal records. The legislation would require PHAs and owners. when determining an applicant’s eligibility, to consider only felonies that resulted in a conviction and could threaten the health or safety of the owners, employees, or other residents. The bill would require PHAs and housing providers to establish a review panel with at least one resident representative to conduct individualized, comprehensive reviews of an applicant’s criminal history, including any mitigating evidence provided by the applicant. It would also require PHAs and property owners to provide applicants a written notice of their screening policies, and if an applicant is denied admission, provide notice of the reasons for the decision and the options for appeal. 

3. Ordinances Restricting Lookback Periods 

Access to federal housing assistance for individuals with criminal records is often difficult, but it is made more so when PHAs and property owners use unreasonable lookback periods to review applicants’ criminal histories. Some communities have passed ordinances that restrict lookback periods and require landlords to complete an individualized review considering mitigating evidence provided by the applicant. The Minneapolis City Council passed an ordinance in 2019 limiting landlords from considering misdemeanors older than three years, felonies older than seven years, and certain dangerous offenses for 10 years. While such limits are reasonable, some communities restrict the lookback periods to even shorter periods. 

4. Access to Legal Counsel

Right to counsel for renters facing eviction is an idea gaining momentum throughout the U.S. New York City was the first to establish the right to an attorney in eviction proceedings. The Bronx Defenders, one of New York’s largest public-defender groups, has shown how better legal representation for low-income renters effectively combats housing insecurity and homelessness. Renters being evicted for criminal misconduct in violation of a lease benefit greatly from having an attorney at their hearings. According to Ryan MacDonald, a staff attorney at The Bronx Defenders, judges will often grant an order of eviction for a crime that has not yet been prosecuted because the eviction gets to court faster than the alleged criminal offense. Having an attorney can often prevent such evictions.

In addition to counsel during eviction trials, many legal-services groups assist people with appeals efforts after an application for public housing or vouchers is denied. In these cases, legal counsel can identify when a PHA has illegally applied screening criteria not allowed by HUD. Mr. MacDonald says its legal counsel services are particularly effective because of their holistic model of working closely with social workers and non-attorney advocates. This integrated practice helps keep people from falling through the various cracks in the housing process and ensures low-income tenants know their rights before an attorney needs to be involved.

"Cities should make significant investments in providing counsel not just for evictions but also for assisted-housing application disputes and any discrimination or unjust denials tenants may face."

5. Housing First

As stated earlier in this Tenant Talk, the best way to prevent and end homelessness is providing people with housing. Whether permanent or transitional housing, assisted housing, or private-market housing, it will always be affordable housing, not handcuffs, that reduces homelessness. 

While homelessness is perceived to be connected to criminality, homeless individuals are often in fact the victims of crime. The National Coalition for the Homeless documented 1,769 acts of violence against homeless individuals by housed perpetrators nationwide from 1999 to 2017, 467 of which were fatal. And these numbers are likely an undercount, as many people experiencing homelessness do not report crimes perpetrated against them.

“Housing First” policies that invest in homeless prevention and re-housing programs are more cost-effective than relying on the prisons and emergency services for people experiencing homelessness. When President George W. Bush’s administration adopted Housing First policies, it saw chronic homelessness decrease by about 30% from 2005 to 2007. With the expansion of Housing First between 2007 and 2016, those sleeping on the streets or in other areas outside of shelters decreased by 31%. This reduction in people living in public spaces reduces exposure to police interactions, unnecessary fines, jail visits, and convictions under policies criminalizing homelessness.

Permanent supportive housing (PSH) provides housing and the wrap-around services like community-based health care, treatment, and employment services that people exiting homelessness need. The National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) found that between 75% and 91% of households remain housed one year after being rapidly re-housed. NAEH also found that PSH can save $31,545 per person in emergency services and $23,000 per person in shelters. It is also important to remember: no price can be put on the value of a person being safely, securely housed, especially marginalized individuals leaving the criminal justice system with few supports.

6. Banning One-Strike Policies in Leases

Banning discriminatory eviction policies in subsidized and private housing leases would increase access to affordable homes for people who have had interactions with the criminal justice system. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Fair Chance at Housing Act of 2019” would ban “one-strike” eviction policies by requiring PHAs and property owners to consider only criminal activities that could threaten the health and safety of others. The bill would require housing providers to complete an individualized review that considers the total circumstances of the family’s situation before deciding to evict. If the PHA or owner decides to evict a tenant due to criminal conduct after completing an individualized review, the household would have the option to remove the member who engaged in criminal activity to stay in the home. The legislation would also eliminate the requirement to include “no-fault” eviction policies in leases.