Contributed by Ejiro Okoro
August 15, 2019
“I, too, am America”—Langston Hughes
The sweetest word there is. It is the place where we reflect on who we are, and dream of who we would like to become. The nation is facing an affordable housing crisis affecting individuals from various income spectrums. Hardest hit are individuals who receive an extremely low income and returning citizens—all individuals who have been released from incarceration. Individuals who have been incarcerated are ten times more likely to be unhoused, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. The problem is that many returning citizens are heavily discriminated against explicitly because they have a record, and implicitly when there are gaps or tarnishes in their credit or rental history. Housing authorities, who provide public housing and Section 8 vouchers to individuals from various backgrounds need to be a part of the solution. With many legislators and President Trump acknowledging the systemic problems causing mass incarceration, with the passage of the First Step Act in December of 2018, specific efforts need to be implemented to provide housing options for the individuals who will join the thousands of returning citizens already released with this new era of reformed legislation.
A word used to justify harsh sentencing practices that sent individuals to for prison for life after 3 strikes. As referenced by RED: Rehabilitation Enables Dreams; research conducted by the National Criminal Justice Reference Service has shown that the presence of opportunity rather than the implemented harsh sentencing– deters crime. The lack of opportunity nearly guarantees recidivism.
The Problem with Public Housing
Many returning citizens are not permitted to receive housing subsidies or live with their family members that reside in public housing after being released from incarceration. Cities and counties designate housing authorities to oversee programs that provide Section 8 vouchers and public housing for the most vulnerable members of society. Each housing authority produces an Admissions and Continued Occupancy Plan (ACOP) that dictate the guidelines for admission and residence in public housing units in the respective jurisdiction. These guidelines do dictate screening procedures that permit the consideration of mitigating factors.
Guidance from Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
As a federal program operating public housing through local housing jurisdictions, HUD can set guidelines that need to be applied in order to continue to receive federal funding. There are two classes of offenses: registered sex offenders and those who have used public housing to manufacture drugs, that are permanently banned from using public housing. Decisions to admit offenses outside the aforementioned classes, are decided by the local jurisdictions. In 2016 under the Obama Administration, HUD authored a resource offering 3 models of communities instituting reentry programs for returning citizens. In their findings, these programs discovered the need for building community partnerships with the individuals and their families, correctional facilities, property managers, probation staff, social services agencies, nonprofit organizations, reform advocates, and elected officials.
In Kings County in Washington, Passage Point—a pilot program created comprehensive supportive housing for returning citizens and their children for 2 to 3 years. Passage point allocated 46 Section 8 Project-Based Vouchers after a rigorous screening program of parents that were currently experiencing homelessness or had a history of homelessness. The Project- Based Voucher allowed recipients to move into rural, high opportunity neighborhoods operated by the YWCA that included supportive services and case management. These parents must have had a reasonable likelihood of reuniting with their children upon their release, and must have been recently incarcerated. Program success included returning citizens acquiring employment, obtaining and retaining custody of their children, and eventually securing permanent housing (with priority given to these individuals within the Kings County Housing Authority). These milestones were to be reached during an 18-24 month period, with exceptions to allow residents to remain beyond 36 months.
In Vermont, 15 individuals with a year of correctional supervision were given vouchers to live in transitional housing facilities owned by the Burlington Housing Authority and operated by the Howard Center, a community mental health and human services provider. Returning citizens were offered supportive services including addressing physical and mental health, employment, and educational goals. After completion of all obligations of early release, participants were offered a Housing Choice Voucher.
In New York, 60-75 residents were granted temporary permission to reside with family members who received public housing vouchers. The NYC Department of Homelessness Services identified individuals who may be eligible as well as the NY Office of Children and Family Services who referred juveniles being released from their facilities. The Vera Institute of Justice reviewed applications for completeness and routed them to the NYC Housing Authority who ultimately determined admission. Each returning citizen enrolled in the program was offered case management for at least 6 months, was required to complete individualized action plans, comply with NYC Housing Authority lease requirements, and adhere to all conditions of parole. Successful participants were allowed to reside with family members on a permanent basis.
Engage With Your Local Officials
Programs such as these need to be promoted to local jurisdictions, and adequately funded by the federal government. The Housing Trust Fund, one of the first major new reforms to address affordable housing in decades, allocated funds for the first time in 2016. In 2018, 267 million dollars were allocated, with legal requirements that 90% be allocated to states for the production, preservation, rehabilitation, and operation of affordable rental housing. Guidelines dictate that 75% of funds are to be directed towards individuals and families that are deemed Extremely Low Income (ELI). Only up to 10% of available funds may be used to support homeownership activities for first time home buyers. These funds are currently only supported by taxing the activities of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, who provide financing for lenders by purchasing mortgages. Legislation has been introduced to drastically increasing this funding. Resources should be partnered with funds available on the state and local level such as reentry grant funding available in California, allocated by the California Adult Reentry Grant created by the 2018-2019 Budget Act.
Our returning citizens add value to our communities. Studies show that communities become safer and crime is reduced when returning citizens are given the opportunity to secure employment, housing, and supportive services.
About the author:
Ejiro Okoro is a law school student and native Californian focused on changing our communities for the better.