The revolving door between prison and homelessness is an unfortunate and well-documented feature of our criminal justice system. But it is not just those returning from prison who are at risk. Even a conviction for a relatively minor offense – and, in some instances, simply being charged with one – can result in a lifetime of housing insecurity, both for individuals and their families. These problems are the focus of an excellent new report from the National HIRE Network that examines criminal record-based housing restrictions across the country and describes what is being done by a few jurisdictions and the federal government to put the brakes on the cycle of conviction, homelessness, and recidivism.
Although record-based housing restrictions are implemented by both private and public housing providers, it is public housing restrictions that pose the biggest risk to individuals with criminal records since their statistically lower income makes them more likely to rely on federal subsidies for housing. Attached to those subsidies are a number of federally-mandated restrictions, including a permanent and automatic ban for anyone convicted of producing methamphetamine in public housing or of a sex offense requiring lifetime registration, and permissible eviction followed by a three-year bar (that may be reduced) for drug-related criminal activity.
But, as the report discusses, those federal restrictions are just the beginning. Federal law explicitly permits subsidized housing providers to reject applicants if a household member has engaged in criminal activity that is violent, drug-related, or that “would adversely affect the health, safety, or right to peaceful enjoyment of the premises” and that was committed within a “reasonable time” before applying. That loose standard gives providers enormous discretion to determine who gets in and who gets shut out:
Earlier this year the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued new guidance asserting that housing policies that exclude people with criminal records may violate the non-discrimination provisions of the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) if they fail to consider the nature, severity, and recency of criminal conduct and if they are not narrowly tailored to protect residents or property. The Justice Department has taken the first step toward judicial enforcement of this guidance.
On October 18 the Department’s Civil Rights Division filed a Statement of Interest in Fortune Society v. Sandcastle Towers Housing Development, a federal civil rights suit brought in the Eastern District of New York against a Brooklyn provider of low-income housing, claiming that it has a blanket policy of refusing to rent to individuals convicted of any non-traffic crime. The Statement urges the court to decide the case based on the legal framework set forth in the HUD guidance, which employs a three-step analysis to determine whether criminal history-based housing exclusion policies amount to illegal racial discrimination prohibited by the FHA.
We reprint the Department’s press release below:
On Monday the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced that housing policies that exclude people with criminal histories may be illegal under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) if the policy fails to consider the nature, severity, and recency of the criminal conduct and is not narrowly tailored to protect residents and property. The new HUD guidance, which applies to private landlords and realtors as well as to public housing authorities (PHAs), stresses that exclusions based solely on arrest records violate the FHA, which prohibits housing discrimination based on race, color, national origin, and other protected classes.
The new guidance should end landlord reliance on electronic background checks to automatically exclude potential renters or purchasers, and greatly expand housing opportunities available to people with criminal histories, whether or not they are members of classes specifically protected by the FHA. As the New York Times reported on Monday:
Lawyers who represent former prisoners said they expected HUD’s stance to lead landlords to revise their screening policies to avoid litigation. The guidance … could also lead to more and stronger lawsuits against those who continue to deny housing based on criminal history.