Second Chances

Jun 15, 2016

A man convicted of robbery 20 years ago, but law-abiding ever since. He applies for housing but his lease is rejected because of his old criminal record.

A homeless woman with a felony conviction dreams of obtaining an apartment, and maybe a job. But she erroneously assumes that because she served time years ago, she’s ineligible for any government housing subsidies.

It’s hard enough being homeless, or covering rent in an area where costs rise more than salaries. Those who have been convicted of a crime face an even tougher battle.

The federal Office of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is trying to change that. In April, HUD announced that refusing to house people who have a criminal record could fall under the same regulations that prohibit discrimination against people based on race or religion.

Some 100 million Americans have a criminal record, HUD notes, and the majority of those people are members of minority groups. So writing off people with criminal records means writing off a lot of minorities and minority communities, which is discriminatory, a department memo says.

“Across the United States, African Americans and Hispanics are arrested, convicted and incarcerated at rates disproportionate to their share of the general population,” the memo notes. “Consequently, criminal records-based barriers to housing are likely to have a disproportionate impact on minority home seekers.”

A landlord might refuse housing to someone whose criminal activity was recent, and tied to their living situation — say, dealing drugs inside an apartment. But the landlord would still need to provide a written statute to show the policy covered everyone who lived there, and then enforce the rules against everyone, no matter their skin color or income.

The change stems from a rash of issues beyond racial. An independent study by the Shriver Center: Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law in 2015 found that, beyond racial disparities, housing providers also:

  • Went too far back in their background checks
  • Considered arrests, even if the person wasn’t convicted
  • Didn’t consider mitigating circumstances
  • Didn’t consider the type of original crime

For example, someone who passed a bad check at 19, but had a clean record since and had taken financial planning courses and turned around their credit rating, might still struggle with finding a rental at age 25.

“Though facially neutral, arrest record screening disparately impacts racial minorities because their rate of arrest is disproportionate to the arrest rate of the general population,” the study notes. “Public safety concerns cannot justify this disproportionate racial impact since housing providers.”

For agencies and landlords, the shifting rules can present a Catch-22, exposing themselves to potential lawsuits from neighbors and other tenants if a known former convict does something harmful to others — for example, a convicted burglar then burglarizing his neighbors. The landlord, says one columnist, might have to worry about other tenants suing.

Finding housing for individuals who are facing homelessness, including former convicts, ultimately helps the entire community. Statistics for recidivism among homeless felons is hard to find, but The Wall Street Journal found that in New York City alone, 22 percent of parolees were homeless after their release, and nationwide, the average recidivism rate was about two-thirds.