Improving Housing Opportunities for Individuals with Conviction Records
The Unfair Roadblock: More than 600,000 people will be released from prison this year. An even greater number will be released from local jails. Individuals returning home will face many challenges. Often, their most immediate need will be securing safe and affordable housing, which for many people is the key to successful integration. While the lack of affordable housing is frequently a problem for people who lack financial resources, this problem is compounded for people with conviction records. They often find that a conviction record is the main stumbling block in obtaining housing, whether in the private sector or in public and Section 8 supported housing.
of the policies that housing authorities or private landlords use to exclude
people with conviction records are overly restrictive, effectively denying
housing to people who pose no threat to the public, tenants or property.
Oftentimes the policies are based on a misunderstanding of federal law,
or on the landlord placing a premium on ease of administration, believing
that it’s easier to “just say no” to all people with
conviction records than to perform individualized analyses of their applications.
These polices should be changed. With greater education and targeted advocacy,
these policies can, be changed. (See the Legal Action Center’s report,
Prison: Roadblocks to Reentry, at www.lac.org/lac.)
How to Remove the Roadblock: Public housing authorities and private landlords should adopt policies that, rather than barring any applicants who have criminal records, instead individually assess each applicant based on:
All these approaches are discussed in this kit, which is designed for those of you who work to increase housing opportunities for people with conviction records. Some of you may have great expertise in working with this population, but may know little about housing law and policies. Others of you may be seasoned housing advocates, but have little experience working with the specific issues surrounding housing for people who have criminal records. You do not need to be, or hire, a lawyer in order to use this kit.
this kit, which is intended to be a practical guide, you will find background
information on housing laws, model housing policies and model legislation,
and a number of tools that you can use to help increase housing opportunities
for people with criminal records. You will also find background material
that you can use to make a claim of racial discrimination in cases where
a landlord’s blanket policy of excluding people with arrest or conviction
records effectively works to exclude people who are black or Latino. You
will also find helpful information on the use of certificates of rehabilitation
in the housing context. We hope that the materials we have provided will
support the particular type of advocacy suitable to your organization,
and perhaps some that will open new avenues of advocacy for you.
One: Model Policies for Housing Authorities.
Two: Model Laws Prohibiting Housing Discrimination Against People with
Conviction Records, and Advocacy Strategies for These Laws.
Three: Use of Certificates of Rehabilitation.
Four: Advocacy Tips.
Five: Making a Claim of Racial Discrimination Under the Fair Housing Act.
Legal Action has also put together another housing kit, entitled, “How
to Get Section 8 or Public Housing Even With a Criminal Record,”
to help people with criminal records who are applying for public housing
marshal their best evidence of rehabilitation. Among other topics, it
includes step-by-step suggestions for gathering this evidence, and includes
sample letters of reference – the type people really need to convince
housing authorities of their rehabilitation. Though the manual focuses
on New York City Housing Authority policies, its chapter on How Can You
Win Your Hearing? can help people applying to other local housing authorities
marshal their best evidence of rehabilitation. Click
here, to see this kit.
Local housing authorities are permitted by federal law to use their discretion in crafting policies regarding the admission of people with criminal records to public housing. Some have used this discretion to implement policies which permanently ban people with criminal records from public housing. Because people who are black or Latino are arrested and convicted at rates far higher than white people, these policies have the effect of excluding more people who are black or Latino than white people from public housing. Thus, these policies are ripe for challenge as having a discriminatory effect and therefore being illegal under the Fair Housing Act.
Advocates seeking to bring this sort of challenge will need to marshal solid statistical evidence to prove that the housing authority’s policy operates to exclude more people who are black or Latino than white people from housing, and to prove that these policies do not actually serve any legitimate goal offered by the housing authority. Advocates should also be prepared to present an alternative method of screening applicants that would ensure safety in housing developments while minimizing discriminatory effects. The model housing policy contained in Package One of this toolkit is a good starting place for developing these alternatives.
We are grateful to the Butler Family Fund and JEHT Foundation for making it possible for the Legal Action Center to develop this toolkit.