Social Housing: The End of Criminal Background Checks?

We in social housing run background checks to protect not only the buildings and provision of social housing but also the residents that we house.  However; there are some questioning those ideas within social housing. An interesting development is taking place in Washington D.C. and Seattle, Washington.  Both of these cities are extremely progressive in their local politics.  Currently background checks are squarely front in center in the aim of these cities.

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The Problem:

It is clear that for many coming out of the prison systems around the world, that housing is going to be a problem.  The cost of housing is one barrier but a landlord not wanting to take a chance on someone with a criminal record is another.  The rate of those who end up in prison going back to prison is quite high.  Many believe that the lack of housing options is one of the main reasons for that to happen.  In the USA, there are a lot of rules around people with criminal backgrounds getting leases and in tight rental markets it is downright impossible.  There are over 2 million people in prison in America currently.   A White House study showed that 77% of all inmates released from a state misprision were re-arrested within 5 years.  It is clear that housing those who were once in prison is a major problem that is causing increased social ills.

Social Housing Agencies Leading the Way:

As in many other areas, social housing providers are leading the way in pushing boundaries on these topics. In New Orleans, the housing authority stopped doing automatic denials for those with criminal background checks.  They now look each each case individually and allow the person to explain the situation and show what steps they may have taken to improve their situation.  They have a panel who review these issues and a recent report showed that 15 out of 17 people with criminal background checks passed.   In Seattle, the housing agency also performs secondary reviews on anybody with a criminal background check and allows all mitigating circumstances to be reviewed.  This falls in line with a lot of the City of Seattle’s policies on housing.

City Wide Laws:

Some cities are also looking at completely over-hauling criminal background policies within their jurisdictions.  In Seattle, this type of thinking has gone to a completely new level.  A piece of city legislation passed recently that would make it illegal to screen applicants based on criminal convictions.  If someone was arrested but not convicted, that could not be looked at as well as expunged records.   In fact, a landlord could not even mention criminal background screening within their adverts for the property openings.

The District of Columbia (D.C) also followed up its city wide legislation to limit criminal background checks for job seekers by applying the same idea to people seeking housing. The bill would stop landlords from barring those arrested but not convicted from housing.  There would be a varying array of fines and penalties for breaking the rules.  Other large cities like San Francisco and L.A. have similar rules on the books.

Challenges:

It is obvious that many cities and housing agencies are trying to take the lead on prison re-entry programs but there are many who push back.  Landlords in the cities that are creating these rules argue that the cities are taking away their rights as landlords to choose who come into their properties.  Many landlords use their properties as a means to live and protecting the properties and having good tenants is important to their annual incomes.  There is obviously risk in housing those who have been imprisoned in the past.  Cities that push for this progressive legislation should expect push back.

There is also reasonable expectations that our residents should have of us to provide safe environments for them.  What does it tell our residents when we don’t run background checks?  It is an interesting but tough question to ask.

Conclusion:

Housing for those coming out of prison will continue to be on the agenda around the world.  Cities need to continue examining best practices and methods for housing those with the largest barriers while protecting the rights of landlords.  It is not an easy bridge to build but continued extermination is needed.

Author: jcrites

Josh Crites is an American social housing professional with both practical and research experience. He has worked at 3 social housing companies in the USA in roles ranging from policy and operations to process improvement and strategy. Josh is a former Alexander von Humboldt German Chancellor Fellow. During that fellowship, Josh researched and worked with social housing companies in Germany, The Netherlands, Portugal, Scotland, England, Estonia and Spain. He is an avid writer and advocate for the provision of social housing around the world.

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