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Nonprofits explore fine line between good business practice and offering second chances

Pam Bailey, NeighborWorks America blogger | 6/12/2017 11:19:12 AM

As many as 100 million U.S. adults – or nearly one-third of the population – have a criminal record of some sort. Since 2004, an average of more than 650,000 individuals have been released annually from federal and state prisons, and more than 95 percent of current inmates will be released at some point. And when they are, they simply can’t be healthy, productive members of their new communities unless they have access to secure, affordable housing and can get a job that will allow them to earn a living.
Yet, as noted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), “many formerly incarcerated individuals, as well as those who were convicted but not imprisoned, encounter significant barriers to securing housing.” With that challenge and others, it’s perhaps no wonder that within three years of release, 67.8 percent of ex-offenders are rearrested and, within five years, the number rises to 76.6 percent.
It is statistics like these that led in April 2016 to the release by HUD of its "Guidance on Application of Fair Housing Act Standards to the Use of Criminal Records by Providers of Housing and Real Estate-Related Transactions." The guidance states that, “While having a criminal record is not a protected characteristic under the Fair Housing Act, criminal history-based restrictions on housing opportunities violate the act if, without justification, their burden falls more often on renters or other housing-market participants of one race or national origin."
This stipulation is important in light of the following facts:

  • In 2013, black Americans were arrested at a rate more than double their proportion of the general population. And in 2014, African-Americans accounted for approximately 36 percent of the total prison population in the United States, but only about 12 percent of the country’s total population. Put another way: Black Americans were incarcerated at a rate nearly three times their proportion of the general population.
  • Latinos are similarly incarcerated at a rate disproportionate to their share of the general population, with Hispanic individuals accounting for approximately 22 percent of the prison population, but only about 17 percent of the total U.S. population.
  • In contrast, non-Hispanic whites accounted for 62 percent of the total U.S. population, but only about 34 percent of the prison population in 2014. Across all age groups, the imprisonment rates for black males is almost six times greater than for white men, and for Hispanic males, it is more than twice that for their non-Hispanic white counterparts.

What's a housing provider to do?

“When some of our local social service agencies came to us and said they were having a hard time getting some people in need into our properties, we listened,” comments Eric Schnell, Chief Operating Officer for Aeon in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “And we began to wonder if we were setting the bar too high when assessing who can live in our rental properties.”
It turned out, however, that this question was difficult to answer. Schnell and his team could not identify any existing research that specifically addressed how criminal history impacts successful residency.

“We knew we couldn’t just drop the issue, however,” Schnell notes. “Aeon’s vision is that everyone has a home, and we really do mean everyone. We are very serious about that.”
So, Aeon took two concrete steps:
  • It applied for a NeighborWorks America Strategic Investment Fund grant to support the work of a group formed with three other nonprofit affordable-housing providers in the metro area: CommonBond Communities (also a network member), Project for Pride in Living and Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative. The goal of the group is to standardize the way they define and measure affordable-housing outcomes (including the options recorded as reasons for vacating property) and commission cross-agency research to determine—based on hard data—the impact of criminal history on housing stability. The ultimate objective, of course, is to be able to offer affordable housing opportunities to an applicant pool that is as diverse and under-served as possible. The research and analysis of the findings are expected to be complete this fall.

    The findings will be shared with the entire affordable housing field, including other agencies, funders and policymakers.
  • In the interim, Aeon has revised its tenant-selection criteria for individuals with histories of criminal convictions. For example, Aeon had previously denied applicants for most of its properties if they had any drug-related convictions of any type at any time. Now, it has categorized types of drug convictions as very high (serious) to very low, with each level of conviction (felony or misdemeanor) within each assigned a number of years that must have passed before a rental application can be accepted. (Manufacture of methamphetamine still carries a lifetime ban.) These interim rules will be revisited once the research project is complete.

The difference a home makes 

One Aeon tenant who represents the benefit—to everyone involved—when ex-offenders are given second chances is Dorsey Howard Jr.

Howard moved with his mother into the “projects” when he was a kid, and it wasn’t long before he got swept up into the “life.” He went to jail in 2006 for two years for gun-related charges, and similar troubles later earned him 10 years of probation (later reduced for good behavior). Before he connected with Aeon, he says he was “staying with family or friends, in hotels, wherever. You could say I was homeless.”
It didn’t help that Howard also didn’t have a regular job. “I completed drug treatment after I got out of prison, but I couldn't find work. For about eight months, I worked with the pastor who owned my treatment center, but then we got a letter from the state saying I couldn't continue because I had been arrested but not charged with shooting a firearm in the air! With my criminal history, I could never get a job paying good money.”
Today, Howard mostly lives off Social Security, but supplements it whenever he can by doing chores for others and giving motivational talks to jailed youth. Teaching, he says, is his “dream job.” He also wrote a book called “One Way,” a collection of short stories from his past describing the consequences of the “left turns” he and family members have made in their lives. The book is meant to guide other people in similar situations, so they don’t make the same mistakes. Howard also has created a teaching curriculum around this concept, and hosts a cable show focused on the same theme.
“It’s very important that we do not make it impossible for men like Dorsey to turn their lives around,” says Schnell. “We live in a reality where there is unequal enforcement of laws, causing a disproportionately high level of disadvantaged populations to have criminal histories. Research also has found that individuals who have been incarcerated are at a significantly higher risk of becoming homeless, and individuals who are homeless are at a significantly higher risk of becoming incarcerated. It’s a vicious circle and we are optimistic that our research will help us all tease out which areas of criminal histories can be overlooked when accepting new housing applicants.”

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