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Report: Public Housing Rules Exclude Too Many With Criminal Records

Local public housing policies can legally discriminate against applicants who have a criminal record. Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development policy since 2016 has shifted away from blanket exclusions based on criminal records, and toward a more focused exclusion of those with drug or violent offense histories.

But the national guidelines leave so much room for discretion that local public housing authorities continue to exclude far more people from housing than necessary, feeding the rates of homelessness among the formerly incarcerated that are seven times higher than the general public, a new report by the Prison Policy Initiative finds.

"At least 79 million Americans have a criminal record and more than a quarter of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed, meaning that millions of people with criminal histories likely meet the income eligibility requirements for public housing assistance," yet are denied housing too often because local public housing authorities wield "great discretion" in enforcing vague national rules, the report says.

The net result undercuts reentry and anti-recidivism efforts, because "before formerly incarcerated people can begin to address health problems, find stable jobs, or learn new skills, they need a place to live," the report states.

The report notes that a newer policy has yet to play out, but could affect local practices:

In June 2022, HUD published the most recent changes to federal public housing policies. These guidelines advocated for PHAs to make their 2023 public housing policies as inclusive as possible for people with histories of criminal legal system involvement. It remains to be seen how PHAs will — or will not — incorporate this directive, as there is no evidence that HUD is limiting the amount of discretion permitted within the existing rules.

In the meantime, Prison Policy Initiative provided a guide to assess whether any given local rules go too far beyond what is necessary to comply with federal policies. The advice distinguishes between mandatory and "permissive" prohibitions, and how local advocates can parse the sometimes-vague definitions to push for more inclusive policies.


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