What's being done to make assisted housing available to returning citizens?
Re entry housing is emerging from the shadows of social policy
This summer the Ohio Housing Authorities Conference (OHAC) convened in Akron to review policies and plans to open up public housing to returning citizens, that is: people being released from prison. For more than four decades, returning citizens have been barred from assisted housing, creating hardships for their families and adding stress to their efforts to return to the community. HUD's famous "one strike" rule was an effort, like mass incarceration for minor offenses, which was designed in the Reagan era (and continued ever since), to "get tough on crime." The impact of these policies has fallen mostly on low income and African American households.
Now, suddenly, both Republicans and Democrats in the White House and Congress seem to agree that the era of mass incarceration is coming to an end. Left to local communities are the unanswered questions about "where will returning citizens work and where will they live?" Advocates in Ohio and across the country have been championing efforts like "Ban the Box" to reduce employment barriers, but winning greater access to affordable housing continues to be a problem.
Joann M. Sahl of the University of Akron (UA) School of Law has been a pioneer in the field of re-entry programs. UA's Expungement Clinics have helped people with minor criminal records legally remove those offenses from their record, thus opening the doors to employment and housing opportunities. Ms. Saul and Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority (AMHA) staff person Sherri Scheetz were instrumental in pulling together legal service, social service and public policy advocates to meet with public housing authority (PHA) staff from around the state.
By way of follow up, Ms. Sahl's students in the UA Legal Clinic have undertaken 4 projects.
1. Create a sign on letter to HUD for Ohio Public Housing Authorities to ask for speedy action on new re-entry guidelines. At the OHAC meeting, a HUD representative promised that new guidance is on the way.
2. Assemble a report on the various programs that Ohio PHAs are taking to improve access for returning systems.
3. Create a collection of "best practices" and a training guide for PHAs.
4. Work with AMHA to create "mitigating circumstances" language into Tenant Selection Plans to encourage use of owner discretion.
Meanwhile, Leslie Schmeltzer from AMHA is working with the Summit County Court of Common Pleas Re entry Program to identify returning citizens to become "guest residents" in an existing AMHA household on a one year probationary basis as a pilot program. After a successful year as a "guest resident", the formerly incarcerated person would be eligible to live in AMHA housing. AMHA is also pledged to use "mitigating circumstances" language in the Tenant Selection Plans (TSP) which are used in the project based properties which AMHA owns. This language could be a model for other private owners of assisted housing. Other PHAs are experimenting with similar plans to create "transitional" housing opportunities, although few are talking out loud their initiatives. Many are waiting for HUD to issue new guidance, so they can tell skeptics: "HUD made us do it."
The lack of public discussion of the need for re-entry housing is a real barrier to progress. For decades, "the public" has been schooled by the media and politicians to believe that their lives would be endangered if the formerly incarcerated people became their neighbors. The re-education process needs to begin right now and should include tenants as well as community leaders and the media. Selling the strong points, like family reunification, could be critical to community acceptance. Because affordable housing is concentrated in economically impacted communities, these returning citizens are not moving into the neighborhoods where public housing staff are living!
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In addition to reaching out to tenants, advocates need to be educating the landlord community (owners and managers) about the need to adapt to the new reality. PHAs can't address the need alone. Privately owned assisted housing must help. Back in 2012, HUD issued a strong letter to owners and managers of HUD assisted properties about the need to exercise discretion in considering applicants with criminal backgrounds (appended at the bottom of the page), but the letter had little or no effect on admission policies. Local HUD offices need to be reviewing Tenant Selection Plans (TSPs) to determine if they provide for flexibility in their treatment of persons with a criminal background...even before formal guidance is provided. Many of the TSPs reviewed by citizen advocates are, at nest, contradictory in how they address the issue of "criminal background."
Take a lesson from history. In the late 1970s, there was a public revulsion at the cost and conditions of the warehousing of persons with mental illness in state run hospitals. All across the country, persons with mental illness were "de-institutionalized" with the idea that community mental health systems would pick up the treatment needs and persons formerly "incarcerated" in state hospitals would find housing in the community. The result was a wave of homelessness as local housing and health care providers were unprepared to accept the returning citizens of that era. With this history in mind it is critical that housing providers (public, private subsidized, and private) start gearing up now for what could be an onslaught of new homeseekers. A few model projects won't be enough to meet the needs of homeseekers who are currently in the community, much less the greater numbers of returning citizens who will come as sentencing reforms are enacted. Sweeping housing policy changes are required.