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‘Housing for All’ must include those who are justice-involved

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“Housing For All,” the mantra of the movement to ensure all individuals and families in the United States can secure affordable and safe housing must include justice-involved individuals. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) recently introduced the Fair Chance at Housing Act to do just this.

It goes without saying that the antidote to homelessness is increasing access to housing, but some might not realize how crucial housing access is to also defeating the cycle of poor health, social instability, and mass incarceration that pervades our country. This legislation is a significant step in fighting the discrimination over 77 million Americans with criminal records can face in securing a home for themselves and their families.

Today, many housing authorities openly discriminate against formerly incarcerated individuals, leaving them without the crucial foundation of a safe and stable home from which they can rebuild their lives. The Fair Chance at Housing Act would require public housing agencies (PHAs) and other HUD-assisted housing to perform individualized reviews of tenant applications, as well as consider mitigating evidence of their past criminal activity rather than issue blanket bans.

The act would also eliminate “one strike” eviction policies, which are overly harsh and can impact an entire family’s stability by taking away housing due to any criminal offense by a single occupant or even a guest.

The legislation would also prohibit PHAs from requiring drug and alcohol testing of tenants and end the current mandate that “no fault” and parole violation provisions be included in leases. (The “no fault” provision allows PHAs to evict families based on drug-related criminal activity of a guest, even without tenants’ knowledge, and the parole violation provision stipulates that violation of parole is grounds for eviction.)

The act would also help to end the devastating practice of keeping families apart — it’s currently common practice for PHAs to indiscriminately ban non-tenant family members from visiting their kin based on past justice-involvement without evidence nor thoroughly considering all the circumstances and impact.

We applaud Sen. Harris and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez for their effort to explicitly include formerly incarcerated individuals in the “Housing For All” effort. As noted in our report, Helping Moms, Dads & Kids to Come Home: Eliminating Barriers to Housing for People with Criminal Records“One under-reported cause of homelessness is that people with criminal records and their families face a broad range of laws, policies, and practices that impede their ability to find and retain safe, affordable housing.” Furthermore, when justice-involved individuals can’t find stable housing, they have a much harder time finding and keeping jobs, maintaining their health, and pursuing educational opportunities — the very things that make re-incarceration less likely, communities safer, and families healthier.

There are hundreds of federal, state, and local laws and regulations that either create mandatory housing restrictions or promote exclusionary practices for justice-involved individuals and their families. Likewise, many municipalities have crime-free rental housing ordinances or voluntary programs that actively encourage private landlords to deny housing to justice-involved individuals. Law and policymakers must recognize the harm these policies cause families across the nation and how passage of the Fair Chance at Housing Act could help to mitigate this harm and reduce instances of homelessness and the disproportionate incarceration of low-income people of color.

Some local jurisdictions have already begun to pave this path. For example, in 2017, the City of Seattle passed legislation to promote the use of individualized tenant assessments as a best practice for ensuring landlords use the Fair Housing Act’s anti-discriminatory standards when an applicant has a criminal history. The DC City Council passed the Fair Criminal Record Screening for Housing Act of 2016 to prohibit housing providers from inquiring about an applicant’s criminal history until providing a conditional offer of tenancy and limited the record inquiry to seven years. San Francisco enacted a law in 2014 prohibiting inquiries about an applicant’s criminal record until a determination has been made that the applicant satisfies all other requirements and altogether prohibiting inquiries about arrests that did not lead to conviction or arrests that led to convictions older than seven years. In 2012, the City Council in Newark, New Jersey similarly prohibited landlords and real estate brokers from inquiring about or considering arrests that did not lead to conviction, expunged or sealed records, or records of juvenile delinquency.

These efforts and the Fair Chance at Housing Act are essential parts of the overarching “Housing For All” campaign. We must keep the momentum going and let our elected officials know that the act’s passage is imperative.

Everyone deserves a safe, affordable place to call home, including people with past justice system involvement.

Roberta Meyers is the Director of State Strategy and Reentry at the Legal Action Centera national nonprofit legal and advocacy organization that works to protect the rights of people with addiction, criminal justice involvement, and HIV or AIDS. She directs the National H.I.R.E. Network (Helping Individuals with criminal records Reenter through Employment), and co-leads LAC’s “No Health = No Justice” campaign to achieve racial equity in health care & criminal justice reform. Follow her on Twitter @rtonimeyers.

Victoria Palacio is the State Advocacy coordinator at the Legal Action Center and works to advance policy advocacy efforts to improve access to employment, healthcare and housing for low-income communities and justice involved populations.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Criminal justice reform Housing discrimination in the United States Housing for All mass incarceration Public housing Right to housing

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