When individuals with criminal records walk out of prison, the odds are not in their favor. Most find themselves back in prison within just a few years. Others struggle with housing access.
Formerly incarcerated youth share the same obstacles as adults when it comes to unsuccessful re-entry. The Justice Policy Institute found that “recidivism rates are often reported at 50 percent or higher for youth released from secure facilities, and as high as 70 percent for youth released from residential placement facilities within two years of their release.”
The Prison Policy Initiative reported that former prisoners are 10 times more likely to become homeless than the rest of the population.
On July 10, Senator Kamala Harris and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced the Fair Chance at Housing Act of 2019. The bill aims to limit evictions and make it easier for individuals with criminal records to access public housing.
“For me personally, I think that it’s a great opportunity to allow people to not be judged based upon their crimes, history and past,” said Terah Lawyer, the program coordinator of the Homecoming Project.
As someone who was formerly incarcerated, Lawyer has seen many people leave prison only to be turned away from public housing. “What you find is that people are paying out $30 to $65 for housing applications [to] a company that knows that they’re not going to even consider them once they see that they’ve been convicted of a felony,” she said.
Lawyer told YR Media that she thinks the bill will give people who have a record a more equal chance at housing. “Look at my credit report. Look at my rental history. Look at who I am as a resident that is upstanding in the community that’s contributing,” she said. “Please don’t hold anything that happened to me 15 or 20 years ago against me from getting housing.”
Harris and Ocasio-Cortez’s legislation would prevent tenants from being evicted after only one incident of criminal activity, a practice often known as the one-strike policy.
Public housing agencies currently have broad discretion for their tenant evaluations under the Housing Opportunity Program Extension Act of 1996 [HOPEA]. The law allows public housing agencies to deny applicants for past criminal or drug offenses, or even for drug or alcohol use.
The newly proposed Fair Chance at Housing Act would ban public housing authorities from making applicants pass drug and alcohol tests in order to keep receiving living assistance. Tenants would only be evicted if they are found to be a threat to anyone’s health or safety after going through an individualized review. The bill would also give individuals a chance to appeal eviction decisions.
“By ensuring that returning citizens have a real opportunity to access federal housing assistance and rejoin their families and communities, this bill reduces the obstacles to housing that often prevent people from getting back on their feet after serving their time in jails or prisons,” the National Low-Income Housing Coalition president and CEO, Diane Yentel, said in Senator Harris’ media release.
The bill has drawn praise from legal experts and criminal justice advocates. “[The Fair Chance at Housing Act] is really reflective of [how] we’re treating human beings who are returning from our criminal justice system as full autonomous human beings as opposed to these walking, talking criminal records,” Ajima Olaghere, a criminal justice assistant professor at Temple University, told YR Media. “The idea that they’re so much more than that and giving them a full chance to thrive in society in ways that they may not have had the chance to do before.”
Impact Justice’s Homecoming Project, where Lawyer works, is a re-entry housing program in Oakland, Calif. for people coming home after serving long-term prison sentences. Lawyer describes it as being “at the hub of networks, connections and people that help them stay aligned on their path of second chances.”
Because of Lawyer’s lived experience with finding housing after leaving incarceration, she takes her work with the prison re-entry population personally. She knows that many former inmates are at high risk of becoming homeless. “I would look outside my window and see homelessness encampments all around. I think it’s something that I’ll take to heart and use it to create better solutions in the work that I’m doing with Impact Justice,” Lawyer said.