A Second Chance to Come Home

Access to safe, fair, affordable housing is key to reentry.

April marks Second Chance Month — a crucial time to consider what must be done to ensure justice-involved individuals are able to successfully return to their communities and leave the criminal justice system behind.

Access to safe, fair, affordable housing is key to reentry.

As we celebrate both fair chances for people with criminal records and fair housing for all, we recognize that justice-involved individuals, like everyone else, need a place to come home to every night. A home provides the stability and security necessary for them to rebuild their lives.

Yet too often, a criminal record stands as a recurring obstacle to finding a place to live.

Justice-involved individuals are often turned away from both federally subsidized housing and the private rental market simply because of their criminal records. In a 2015 survey of formerly incarcerated people, roughly 4 out of every 5 respondents said they had been shut out of housing opportunities.

It comes as little surprise, then, that men who have been incarcerated are at four times the risk of homelessness as those who have never been incarcerated. Moreover, housing instability and homelessness can exacerbate other collateral consequences associated with a criminal record, making a return to the criminal justice system even more likely.

When justice-involved people are unable to secure stable housing, entire families and communities suffer.

The collateral consequences of a criminal record are not limited to justice-involved individuals. Nearly half of all U.S. children have a parent with a record, and housing instability can, for example, significantly undercut their ability to achieve academically.

Indeed, these obstacles can unfortunately follow justice-involved people and their loved ones long after they have left the justice system and turned their lives around. And, because of the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, screening criminal records for housing harms people of color the most.

Since criminal records are often used as a proxy for racial discrimination, advocates have relied on the Fair Housing Act as a means of protection from arbitrary and unreasonable screening policies.

Although the federal government has taken some action to enforce housing protections for people with records, more and more state and local actors are taking up the charge.

For example, in North Carolina and New York, state agencies have followed HUD’s lead and issued similar guidance to certain housing providers. Moving beyond guidance, California’s Fair Employment and Housing Council is currently reviewing proposed regulations on the use of criminal history records in both private and publicly subsidized housing.

Meanwhile, a small but growing group of municipalities — including Newark, New Jersey; San Francisco, California; Richmond, California; and Washington, D.C. — have enacted legislation in recent years to dismantle housing barriers for people with criminal records in different ways, such as by requiring individualized assessments for applicants, by designating permissible screening criteria, by setting time limits on inquiries, and by putting procedural safeguards against abuse in place. The most recent of these ordinances comes from Seattle, where a strong coalition led by directly impacted individuals stood their ground and fought for protections that would apply regardless of when a person left the criminal justice system. Highlighting the importance of fair housing to people with criminal records, advocates in New Orleans, Louisiana, kicked off their new ordinance campaign earlier this month to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Fair Housing Act.

Justice-involved individuals deserve a second chance at a home.

Recent state and local developments are encouraging, especially since most are driven by the individuals and families who most acutely bear the burden of housing discrimination on the basis of criminal history. These voices must continue to be elevated and centered in the fight for housing rights for justice-involved individuals. Only then will we achieve the promises of fair chances and fair housing.

About the Author

Marie Claire Tran-Leung
Marie Claire Tran-Leung
Marie Claire Tran-Leung

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