When Discretion Means Denial

Overly restrictive housing admissions policies create barriers to housing for individuals with criminal records.

Overly restrictive policies used by public housing authorities and federally subsidized project owners to deny admission to people with criminal records can violate civil rights laws, increase homelessness, and otherwise impede a person’s chance to reintegrate into society.

This February 2015 report from the Shriver Center, When Discretion Means Denial: A National Perspective on Criminal Records Barriers to Federally Subsidized Housing, urged the Department of Housing and Urban Development to take active steps to eliminate barriers to housing for persons who have had contact with the criminal justice system.

Based on a review of over 300 written admissions policies from across the country, the report finds that the wide discretion given housing providers has resulted in broad screening criteria that deny individuals admission to housing for mere arrests and decades-old criminal convictions, among other problems. The report identifies four areas where criminal records policies tend to be overly restrictive.

In November 2015, HUD issued guidance that makes it clear that landlords may not use blanket bans to refuse housing to individuals with arrest records. It also reaffirms the duty of housing providers to apply the discretion they have in crafting and administering criminal records policies in compliance with civil rights laws. The guidance, which applies to federally funded public housing, lauds as a best practice an individualized assessment of each applicant’s criminal record, including consideration of the seriousness of the crime, the length of time since the offense was committed, and any evidence of rehabilitation.

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