Former inmates often struggle to find a place to live. Public housing authorities and private landlords may refuse to rent to them, labeling them public safety risks, sending them to the streets, to homelessness, and often back to prison for offenses like sleeping in public spaces and panhandling. Three years ago, New Orleans’ housing agency, acting on guidance from the Obama administration, made a change, the New York Times reports. The Department of Housing and Urban Development notified housing agencies and owners of federally assisted housing they could not use arrest records in admissions decisions. “The opportunity to secure an affordable, decent place to live is part of an effective second chance,” said HUD Secretary Julián Castro, now a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The Housing Authority of New Orleans shortened the length of an applicant’s past that would be subject to a criminal background check and created a process for interviewing applicants on a case-by-case basis. People with convictions would be reviewed by a three-person panel under guidance that would make clear distinctions between offenses. From August 2016 to March 2019, the housing authority received 52 panel review requests. Only one person has been denied. In New Orleans, landlords may conduct their own criminal background checks, but several other places, like Seattle, Newark and Cook County, Il., limit how private landlords can determine admission decisions based on criminal records. In Congress, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) have proposed a law requiring public housing authorities to consider mitigating circumstances when making screening determinations based on criminal activity.