The recent foreclosure crisis had the most severe impact on low-income and minority neighborhoods. Although the number of new foreclosure filings is now declining, the poor neighborhoods hit hardest continue to struggle to overcome the impact of housing abandonment and disinvestment. Vacant and blighted properties still plague neighborhoods, families are still fighting to stay in their homes, and hundreds of thousands of properties still enter the foreclosure process each year.
Many policymakers and local governments have responded with concern about the secondary effects of property abandonment and vacancy, particularly increases in disorder and crime. Neighborhoods affected by the foreclosure crisis experience physical deterioration and residential turnover, leading to a perception that the neighborhood lacks protection and “eyes on the street.” Vacant properties may also provide a safe haven for crime. In response, many local governments and housing authorities have relied on policies and practices that target individuals with criminal records as a threat to their neighborhoods. Ironically, however, these policies in fact increase displacement and crime in the communities they are meant to protect. Without stable housing, many men and women with criminal histories struggle to maintain mental health treatment, overcome substance abuse, and secure employment—which increases the likelihood they will re-offend.
Housing instability remains one of the primary barriers to individuals’ successful reintegration into communities after interaction with the criminal justice system, but policies that limit housing opportunities for individuals with criminal records are still widespread. Instead of mandating individualized screening that considers any mitigating circumstances behind an applicant’s criminal history, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development grants substantial discretion to both public housing authorities and private landlords renting government-subsidized units. This discretion is often abused by public housing authorities, whose implementation and enforcement of overly restrictive local policies leads many individuals and families to be unnecessarily excluded from federally subsidized housing.
Individuals with criminal records also encounter discrimination in the private rental market, as many landlords employ criminal records checks as a method of screening applicants. Some admissions policies used by private landlords bar admission to applicants with criminal records of any kind—including records consisting only of arrests, or decades-old convictions for minor offenses. Policies enacted by local governments compound this problem by putting pressure on landlords to keep properties “crime-free.” Over 100 municipalities in Illinois alone have enacted crime-free rental housing ordinances in recent years, penalizing landlords for suspected criminal activity on their properties.
Policies and practices that exclude individuals with criminal records from stable housing will only serve to increase homelessness and jeopardize safety in our communities. Communities that develop partnerships with men and women who have interacted with the criminal justice system, on the other hand, may be able to fight the problems of blight, crime, and destabilization. This alternative approach has been adopted by the Green ReEntry Program—an interfaith collaboration run by the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), the Jewish Council of Urban Affairs, and the Southwest Organizing Project in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood.
Chicago Lawn was hit hard by the foreclosure crisis and is still experiencing its effects. In 2013, the long-term vacancy rate in Chicago Lawn was nearly twice as high as in the rest of Chicago. One three-square-mile area alone had 479 vacant homes. As a result, civic institutions in Chicago Lawn have suffered, and neighbors have opted to move away from the community rather than to invest in abandoned properties. Instead of working to keep individuals with criminal histories out of the neighborhood, the Green ReEntry Program has partnered with them to develop a creative solution. The program employs men and women with criminal records to convert vacant properties in Chicago Lawn into affordable, environmentally friendly housing. This redeveloped housing then serves as a stable place for them to call home.
The Green ReEntry Program recently acquired a vacant building that had been marked for demolition after a series of criminal incidents took place on the property. The building was a site for drug dealing and prostitution, and a recent sexual assault galvanized the community to do something. The Green ReEntry Network—comprised of neighbors, priests, imams, and rabbis—organized to acquire the property and worked with individuals with criminal records to rehabilitate it and to give them a place to live. The Chicago Lawn building now includes eco-friendly insulation, efficient appliances, and a backyard vegetable garden. The basement will serve as a public space for community meetings. The men and women living in the rehabilitated Chicago Lawn building are settling into their community, and actively participating in the process of improving it. The Green ReEntry Program is now working to acquire two additional properties in the neighborhood to retrofit.
The Green ReEntry Program’s approach represents an interesting model of rehabilitation that could hold promise for other neighborhoods across the country. The model is based on the recognition that finally moving past the devastation of the foreclosure crisis will require a unified effort, while continued exclusion will only increase homelessness and perpetuate crime in our communities.