How cities are helping former felons get stable housing

Providence, R.I., and New Orleans have begun to rethink 'one strike' rules that have prevented ex-offenders from getting into public housing.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Bruce Reilly, deputy director of Voices of the Experienced (VOTE) on May 22, 2017, in New Orleans, La. VOTE is a nonprofit that works on behalf of ex-offenders to help them reintegrate after incarceration.

Six months after Ronald Doyle’s wife died, he got a call from a public housing officer. Her turn had come up, and a family unit was available. For Mr. Doyle, who had three young children at home, it sounded like a lifeline. 

But when Doyle tried to transfer the unit into his name and move his family in, he was denied. No reason was given, but as a former felon he knew the drill. “It’s all about my record,” he says.

That record includes a 10-year sentence for armed robbery in Providence. When Doyle got out of jail in 1991 after serving eight years, he had nowhere to go. “I never knew my father. My mother died at 44. My grandma died while I was in jail,” he says.

Public housing wasn’t an option for a felon like Doyle, so he drifted between addresses. Eventually he found steady work in construction, enough to pay the rent and later start a family with his wife. In 2006, he trained to handle contaminated materials and was sent to New Orleans to help clean up in the wake of hurricane Katrina. It was good money, and Doyle felt a sense of purpose.

Then he got the news that his wife had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. He flew back to Providence and stayed with her until her death, while taking care of their three young children. “I was their father and their mother,” he says.

When the housing officer called him after his wife’s death, he says he was informed that it wouldn’t be a problem to change the lease, provided he had legal custody of the children.

What happened next isn’t clear; Doyle says he got into a heated row when he visited the housing project after an official told him that he wasn’t entitled take over the lease. He believes that he was barred because of his criminal record. Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE), an advocacy organization in Providence, has highlighted Doyle’s case in its campaign and invited him to speak at public hearings.

“All I want is to live affordably,” says Doyle, an African-American who gets by on disability checks for a heart condition. He lives with his teenage children in a one-bedroom apartment on which he owes three months back-rent, and has applied repeatedly for public housing. “I want my kids to have a safe place, a nice safe place.”

For anyone who’s been in prison, finding stable housing is a challenge that is handicapped by tough, “one-strike” rules on public housing aid. From federally funded housing projects to voucher programs, criminal records can be the difference between having shelter and being on the streets. Families who take in formerly incarcerated members – spouses, children, siblings – run the risk of eviction for violating the rules.

In recent years, some cities have begun to rethink this rigid approach, encouraged by former President Barack Obama who sought to extend a “second chance” to ex-offenders and tackle record rates of incarceration. Experts argue that stable housing, along with support services for ex-offenders, including drug treatment and education, can ease their reentry and reduce high rates of recidivism.

“Housing is more than shelter for the night. Housing is really fundamental to people staying out of the criminal justice system,” says Marie Claire Tran-Leung, a staff attorney at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law in Chicago.

The Trump administration has yet to lay down a marker on this reform movement. But public housing executives say they haven’t seen any change of federal guidelines.

“We want HUD [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] to continue to take the lead on this,” says Ms. Tran-Leung, who has studied housing reentry programs in New York and other cities. “But at the end of the day, the policies that are going to impact people on the ground are going to come locally.” 

Last year New Orleans became the largest housing authority to end the automatic rejection of felons and give all applicants a hearing. Housing agencies in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles have run pilot programs on rehousing former prisoners, including family reunifications.

In April, Providence, R.I., where Doyle lives, revised its housing admissions policy, halving the “look back” period for violent and drug-related crimes and no longer weighing arrests and minor crimes. Like New Orleans, it ended automatic denials in favor of individual hearings.

“It means a one-on-one consideration of people’s circumstances,” says Melissa Sanzaro, deputy executive director of Providence Housing Authority.

She says she can’t comment on Doyle’s case but questions whether the account was complete. “Some allegations from DARE we found not to be valid at all,” she says. She conceded that applicants like Doyle could have been excluded under the old policy of blanket rejections.

Public records show that Doyle had other arrests and citations when he was on supervisory probation. Last year, he was charged with possession after he gave a ride to an acquaintance who was carrying drugs. Under Providence’s revised policy, applicants engaged in drug use in the previous six months are excluded. Doyle could be penalized if they suspect he was using.

Providence’s policy is too new for any change to be felt. In New Orleans, though, a six-month review found that 15 of 17 applications with criminal records had been approved by the panel. The other two were withdrawn. All were applicants who had been denied under the old policy.

Politics of crime prevention

There are more incarcerated people in the US than any other country in the world. After decades of rapid expansion undergirded by strict sentencing laws, US prisons are slowly paring the numbers behind bars, currently 2.3 million.

In addition to offenders released from state or federal prisons, many more cycle annually through local jails: Roughly 25,000 are released a day, according to a 2016 White House study. They can still be excluded from public housing on account of their arrests or reported drug use, even if they never stood trial.

The White House study noted that 77 percent of inmates in state prisons were rearrested within five years of their release. Nearly half re-offended in their first year.

Like the policies that fueled that prison boom, public housing exclusions are rooted in the politics of crime prevention.

In 1996, President Clinton called for a one-strike strategy. “Criminal gang members and drug dealers are destroying the lives of decent tenants. From now on, the rule for residents who commit crime and peddle drugs should be ‘one strike and you’re out,’” he said.

Punitive measures for offenders had strong support from minorities living in public housing plagued by gun violence and drug dealing. Many African-American politicians and civil rights leaders sided with lawmakers in mandating long prison terms for drug traffickers, particularly during the crack epidemic that peaked in the early 1990s.

Housing agencies began to impose automatic bans for criminal activity and to look at arrests as well as convictions. Families faced eviction if their children or grandchildren sneaked drugs into the house, a policy since ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court.

Today, federal law has changed; it only prohibits housing aid to registered sex offenders and those convicted of producing methamphetamine in public housing. That leaves broad discretion for the roughly 3,000 agencies, from big cities to rural towns, that oversee federally funded public housing and voucher programs.

Campaigners say it’s impossible to know how many ex-offenders are excluded from housing, and for what reason, since most agencies don’t keep track and there is no national tally.

Compounding the problem, the White House has proposed deep cuts to housing subsidies. Currently, only 1 in 4 households eligible for federal aid receive public housing; ex-offenders who pass screenings join long waiting lists for new units.

In Providence, criminal record denials made up 61 percent of rejections for public housing in 2014. Appeals were rarely successful. “It’s like a kangaroo court,” says John Prince, a former prisoner who works on criminal justice at DARE.

Like many former inmates, Mr. Prince struggled to find shelter after his release in 1998 and ended up on the streets of Providence, a college town and state capital with a population of 180,000. Its housing authority has 2,600 units in nine developments and 2,700 vouchers for private rentals. None were open to Prince.

Ms. Sanzaro says housing tenants in Providence have fought in the past to “clean up their communities” and as Providence considered changing its policies, they were wary of former prisoners moving in. “They said it was really risky, that was the word they used,” she says. “But at the same time, people deserve a second chance.”

Indeed, critics say this type of exclusion is unfair to former prisoners who have done their time behind bars. While housing aid is taxpayers’ money, denying ex-offenders at risk of recidivism may be a false economy. Rhode Island’s cost per prison inmate in 2015 was $58,564, or $177 per state resident, according to the Vera Institute, many times what an annual housing subsidy costs.

“People who have criminal records ... can’t work here, can’t vote there, can’t live there, can’t go to school there, what do we expect them to do? And so then we end up, because of those exclusionary policies, actually creating more crime, because the only option available is crime,” says Bruce Reilly, deputy director of Voice of the Experienced in New Orleans and an ex-offender himself, who works with grass-roots campaigns for fair housing access in both Providence and New Orleans.

While the developments in Providence and New Orleans are heartening, he says, America “is not ready for things like actual forgiveness and real transformation.”

Opportunity to become productive citizens

Mr. Reilly spent 12 years in prison in Rhode Island after being convicted of second degree murder and larceny at 19. He became a jailhouse lawyer, writing motions for other inmates and helping them prepare for parole-board hearings, which is how he found out about public-housing exclusions.

He says prisoners told him they “couldn’t go back to live where they used to live. ‘I can’t go live back with my mom,’ ‘I can’t live with my kid’s mom,’ ‘I can’t live with my grandfather,’ because they’re in … public housing. And I was always like, ‘Why is this?’ ”

Some flout the rules and move in anyway, says Reilly.

“The family has been, and will be, the No. 1 reentry program that we’re ever going to have, and for most of time it’s been the only one we’ve had,” he says.

Reilly left prison in 2005. One of the first places he went was DARE’s office in Providence where he knew Prince and other activists from prison and his letter writing. He became involved in criminal-justice campaigns, including a successful ballot initiative to restore voting rights for ex-prisoners. He also wrote and directed plays about life on the inside.

In 2011, he enrolled at Tulane law school in New Orleans. That year, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan wrote to housing agencies across the country to urge them to rethink their rules on ex-offenders. “People who have paid their debt to society deserve the opportunity to become productive citizens and caring parents, to set the past aside and embrace the future,” he wrote.

This shift in thinking galvanized criminal justice campaigners in Providence and New Orleans, including Reilly, who began volunteering at VOTE and later graduated from Tulane with a law degree – though it’s unlikely he can become an attorney, since Louisiana’s charter mandates “good moral character and fitness.”

Meanwhile, DARE, Reilly’s former organization, lobbied Providence for three years to reform its rules for former detainees. In April, the housing authority board in Providence voted unanimously to adopt new rules.

Among the changes introduced are a lookback period for felonies of five years, down from 10; no consideration of misdemeanors or arrests; and deferrals for applicants charged but not convicted of crimes so that they can remain on waiting lists.

For campaigners in Providence, it was a public victory, though not all their demands were met. And housing is only one small piece of the overall problem of mass incarceration and the rehabilitation of ex-offenders.

“This is a good change but it’s not enough,” says Prince. “We’re just chipping on an iceberg. I want to chip it all off.”

Staff writer Henry Gass contributed reporting from New Orleans.

Correction: Bruce Reilly was convicted of second degree murder and larceny at 19.

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