Exclusive: HUD unveils plan to help people with a criminal record find a place to live

Exclusive: HUD unveils plan to help people with a criminal record find a place to live

  • HUD is making it easier for Americans with a criminal record to find housing.
  • In six months, HUD will produce new guidelines and model documents, such as leases.
  • The move would impact all federally funded housing programs, including public housing authorities and rental assistance voucher programs.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is working to make it easier for people with a criminal record to find housing – a move that could have widespread implications for nearly 1 in 3 Americans.

In a memo sent out to staff on Tuesday, HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge instructed the department to review programs and policies that may “pose barriers to housing for persons with criminal histories or their families.”

Fudge told staffers they have six months to propose updates and amendments consistent with the directive to “make our policies as inclusive as possible.” Among the many things HUD staffers will be looking into are guidance documents, model leases and other agreements.

Some federal laws ban people convicted of certain crimes from accessing publicly funded housing programs, including anyone convicted of methamphetamine production on the premises of federally assisted housing, lifetime registered sex offenders and people convicted of drug possession.

The outside of a Bronx, New York, public housing project.

That means any changes would impact some of the agency’s most widespread programs, including federally funded public housing authorities and rental assistance voucher programs known as “Section 8.”

The move is part of a wider effort led by the White House to advance racial equity after President Joe Biden issued an executive order last year mandating all federal agencies identify potential barriers facing underserved communities to enroll and access federal benefit programs.

Fudge said HUD could not ignore the fact that people of color have been historically overrepresented in the criminal justice system.

“We must understand the potential discriminatory impact exclusions based on criminal history can have on protected classes,” Fudge wrote.

Roughly 70 million to 100 million Americans have a criminal record, or about a third of the nation, according to the FBI. Of these, roughly 19 million have a felony conviction, as reported by the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonpartisan think tank based in Easthampton, Massachusetts.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge speaks about rooting out racial and ethnic bias in home valuations in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus March 23, 2022, in Washington. This week, Fudge asked the agency to propose updates and amendments to "make our policies as inclusive as possible" for people who were previously incarcerated and face barriers to housing access.

Black Americans are incarcerated at a rate about five times higher than whites, while Latinos are 1.3 times more likely than whites to be incarcerated.

Tim Thomas, research director at the University of California, Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project, said oversight and screening policies by federally funded housing providers can disproportionately harm Black and brown people.

“Housing is such an important component to recovery from the mark of a criminal history and getting back on your feet,” he said.

Fudge’s directive to the agency builds on HUD’s 2016 memo under the Obama administration, which cautioned housing providers that overly broad criminal history-based policies could result in disparate impact.

Many private landlords also refuse to provide housing to people with criminal records.

People with criminal records aren’t a protected class under the Fair Housing Act of 1968, a landmark law that made it illegal to discriminate against people from renting or buying a home, securing a mortgage or seeking housing assistance. As written, the law protects people from discrimination only on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability and familial status.

The end result often affects entire families, as women, children, grandparents and siblings can be denied housing if they live with a relative who has a criminal record.

This file photo shows a barbed wire fence outside inmate housing on New York's Rikers Island correctional facility in New York. In a memo sent out to staff on Tuesday, HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge instructed the department to review programs and policies that might discriminate against persons that were previously incarcerated.

“I think there’s a case to be made for offering those with a record protection under the Fair Housing Act,” said Peter Hepburn, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University in New Jersey and an analyst with the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.

Fudge said criminal records should be considered to the extent that applicants pose a current risk to people or property and these risks need to be weighed against other factors.

“Criminal histories are used to screen out or evict individuals who pose no actual threat to the health and safety of their neighbors,” Fudge wrote.

Some experts said landlords need more technical assistance and support to deal with the specific needs of previously incarcerated people. Akira Drake Rodríguez, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design and School of Social Policy and Practice, said HUD must implement sweeping reforms and create new programs.

“HUD properties were some of the first to discriminate against those with convictions and arrests, and could set a great example by striking down these discriminatory practices and building out special vouchers to address the unique housing needs of incarcerated peoples,” Drake Rodríguez said.

Follow Romina Ruiz-Goiriena on Twitter: @RominaAdi