Across the United States, hundreds of thousands of poor people have been denied access to public housing because they have criminal records, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. They have been excluded for often minor and long-ago offenses that have no bearing on public safety, which is the goal of strict admission policies.
Based on research across the country, the 101-page report “No Second Chance” is the first examination of “one strike” policies in public housing. Established to protect housing developments from potentially dangerous tenants, these policies automatically exclude applicants with certain criminal records. Unfortunately, the criteria for exclusion are needlessly overbroad and can exclude certain offenders for life—regardless of evidence of their rehabilitation.
“Everyone deserves safe housing, but these policies yield more misery and desperation than public safety,” said Corinne Carey, researcher for Human Rights Watch's U.S. Program.
There is no nationwide data on the number of people excluded because of criminal records. Some 650,000 men and women leave prison each year. Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 3.5 million people have been convicted of a felony in the last five years. Given that housing authorities typically exclude for five years anyone convicted of a felony regardless of the nature of their offense, it is likely that at least 3.5 million are currently ineligible for public housing.
For many low-income families, public housing is the only feasible opportunity for stable and affordable housing. As the report documents, when those with criminal records are excluded, they often end up among the estimated 12.5 million Americans who have been homeless, living on the streets, in overcrowded shelters, or in squalid transient motels. Many of them double up with family or friends, which puts the entire household at risk of eviction from public housing.
“The federal government is finally paying attention to the people leaving prison and re-entering the community,” said Carey. “But even the best-designed re-entry program will fail if those returning from prisons and jails can't get housing.”
The report details many of the unreasonable and needlessly punitive aspects of federal and local housing policy. In Pittsburgh, for example, an arrest for shoplifting leads to automatic exclusion for four years following the offense. In Austin, Texas, authorities automatically reject for seven years anyone convicted of possessing a small amount of marijuana.
The United States has recognized that adequate housing is a fundamental right of every human being. This right is contained in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a basic human rights treaty the U.S. has signed but not yet ratified, and is elaborated in the Habitat Agenda, a global action plan for realizing this right that 171 countries, including the U.S., have signed. In the United States, public housing programs are the principal means for indigent people to obtain adequate housing.
The report contains detailed recommendations directed at the U.S. Congress, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and local public housing authorities.