Tag: Housing Justice

How HUD Can Help Fulfill the Promise of Second Chances

Over the holidays, President Obama commuted the prison sentences of 95 men and women, giving most of them an April 2016 release in place of indefinite imprisonment. To each person, he wrote that the president’s clemency power “embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws.”

Upon their release, however, these men and women may find that the rental housing market does not always offer the same second chance to the formerly incarcerated. To give them the best opportunity to move beyond their past mistakes, the Obama Administration will need to open more than the doors leading out of prison. It must also open the doors leading into housing. Otherwise, these men and women will be left with a false hope of redemption.

Citing the importance of stable housing to the successful reintegration of the formerly incarcerated, HUD (the federal agency that directs U.S. housing policy) issued a notice in November 2015 on the use of criminal records in federally subsidized housing. Although the notice touched upon important topics, such as the improper use of arrest records to prove criminal activity, it glossed over a number of issues that are critical to addressing housing barriers for people with criminal records.

To bring attention to those issues, the Shriver Center, with the assistance of the Housing Justice Network and over 50 other organizations, sent a letter to HUD with detailed recommendations for closing the gaps that its notice left behind.

Two critical issues call for urgent attention. First is the need for guidance on developing screening criteria in compliance with the Fair Housing Act (FHA). As explained previously, this guidance will help to curtail the unjustified, disparate racial impact of criminal records screening resulting from the racial disparities that pervade the criminal justice system. Such guidance is also long overdue, especially considering that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued its policy on the use of criminal records under Title VII (the employment counterpart to the FHA) back in 2012.

Second, HUD guidance is also needed to outline a housing provider’s duty to limit its inquiry to a “reasonable time” before admission and to refrain from imposing blanket bans.

The letter to HUD discusses additional areas affecting people with criminal records that merit HUD’s attention. It asks specifically that HUD take the following actions:

  • use more affirmative language to emphasize that “one strike policies” are inconsistent with HUD’s stated commitment to expanding housing opportunities for people with criminal records;
  • require, rather than simply encourage, the consideration of mitigating circumstances across all the federally subsidized housing programs to put an end to automatic admission denials, subsidy terminations, and evictions on the basis of criminal records;
  • confirm that non-criminal citations, such as traffic and municipal violations, should not result in adverse housing decisions;
  • ensure that applicants and residents receive copies of criminal reports used against them, whether the reports come from the police or a tenant screening company;
  • clarify that public housing authorities can add people with criminal records onto current leases, such as with their family members, and that they receive the same rights as other household members;
  • eliminate rescreening requirements for participants who have already been previously screened for criminal activity, such as those trying to port their Housing Choice Vouchers, return to redeveloped public housing, or obtain special vouchers, such as Tenant Protection Vouchers and Enhanced Voucher; and
  • stress that civil rights requirements apply across all the federally subsidized housing programs, including Moving-to-Work jurisdictions and Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) conversions.

Given President Obama’s focus on criminal justice reform in the last year of his administration, the time is now for HUD to act upon these recommendations and fulfill the promise of second chances made to those who were granted clemency and to everyone like them beginning their lives again after incarceration.

On December 28, 2015, HUD sent a letter in response to the letter from the Shriver Center and other legal aid, policy, and civil rights organizations. A copy of the letter may be found here

Americans Expect Their Elected Officials to Address Housing Affordability

On June 9, the MacArthur Foundation released the results of its 2015 How Housing Matters study. This nationwide survey of adults was designed to help the Foundation understand the public’s experiences, attitudes, and perspectives about housing. The survey also documents respondents’ attitudes on how to address housing trends and challenges.

Not surprisingly, the results are disappointing. The survey reveals the public is severely pessimistic about current and future prospects for social mobility, and that housing in particular is front and center to those concerns. Respondents consider stable housing to be among the most significant factors that allow people to secure a middle-class lifestyle, but also consider it among the most difficult to achieve. Moreover, respondents still perceive foreclosure and housing affordability to be major problems – especially for Millennials and minorities, who most believe are being left behind others in the post-recession economic recovery.

The vast majority of survey respondents want their federal, state and local elected officials to address housing affordability. While many respondents have an unclear vision for, and lack of confidence in, their elected officials, they nonetheless want government and the private sector involved. 

Congress should take heed of these views. As the economy and housing market continue to recover, now is not the time to cut back federal funding for programs that encourage housing stability, economic recovery, and housing mobility. The House of Representatives recently began discussing the FY16 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies (THUD) Act (H.R. 2577). The House proposals drastically undercut existing federal housing funds and continue the sequestration cuts resulting from the Budget Control Act. If allowed to move forward, non-defense discretionary funding would be established at its lowest level on record even though the need for these programs remains at historic highs. 

One major concern if this moves forward unaltered is that National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF) funds would be directed away from creating affordable rental housing – the NHTF’s original purpose – despite plans for the NHTF finally to have been implemented in 2016. Congress should once and for all take steps to fund the NHTF and use it to increase affordable housing for extremely low-income households.

Beyond funding, federal leaders should continue initiatives to prevent discrimination and ​promote racial integration, including finalizing HUD’s proposed Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule. Billions of federal dollars are sent each year from HUD to local and state governments and public housing authorities, and this rule would help insure that those recipients use the funds to advance the important purposes of the federal Fair Housing Act.

Congress should also recognize what this survey shows the public knows: that the foreclosure crisis is not yet over. Congress should renew the federal Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act, which sunsets at the end of 2014. Local leaders should also not wait for Congress to do its job, and should pass their own measures to protect renters who are innocent victims of the foreclosure crisis.​ ​

The 2015 How Housing Matters survey affirms that the public is aware of our country’s affordable housing crisis and expects their elected officials to act.  Elected officials need to step up and meet these expectations.