Barriers to Re-entry: Housing

Haley Schmidt, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2009 the number of prisoners released exceeded the number of people incarcerated for the first time in 31 years.[i] This trend has continued with 637,411 prisoners being released in 2012.[ii] Approximately 48.7% of all individuals currently incarcerated are serving time for drug related offenses.[iii] Felons with drug convictions face a unique set of barriers to re-entry. Housing and employment are often two of the biggest hurdles. This blog will focus on the barriers to obtaining housing.

The federal government administers several housing assistance programs in the United States. Most notable are the Section 8 project-based rental assistance program, the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program, and the public housing program. These programs are administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development federally, but are administered locally in various ways.

Both Section 8 voucher programs and public housing programs are administered by public housing authorities and federally funded. Section 8 project-based assistance is also federally funded, but administered by private property owners. Income qualifications, as well as rent and subsidy determinations are set forth at the federal level. Policies regarding tenant screening and program suitability are left to the public housing authorities and private landowners.

Persons convicted of manufacturing methamphetamines are denied admission to public housing programs and section 8 voucher programs; however, this denial does not apply to Section 8 project-based programs[iv]. For all three programs persons evicted from federal housing for drug-related criminal activity are ineligible for federal housing assistance for three years following the eviction. Furthermore, denials of housing assistance are made for any household with a member reasonably believed to be illegally using a controlled substance. Denials may also be made for anyone who has previously been engaged in drug-related criminal activity. These determinations are up to the property owners of public housing authority depending on the type of assistance sought.

In all three programs statutory regulations require certain criminal activities to be grounds for termination of currently active assistance, but not require such termination. Criminal activity that threatens the health, safety, or right to peaceful enjoyment of other tenant, or any drug related criminal activity on the premises, engaged in by the tenant, member of the tenant’s household, or guest or other person under the tenant’s control is cause for termination, generally. Each program adds one or two key words that cay their potential enforcement drastically. In public housing the criminal activity may be on or off the premises. Section 8 voucher programs allow for drug-related or violent criminal activity on or near the premises. Section 8 project-based programs allow for termination when criminal activity is on or near the premises. Furthermore, public housing authorities began instituting so-called “one strike” eviction policies under HUD’s guidance in the late 1990s. These policies allow for households to be evicted based on the activities of a guest, even if they took place outside of the house. The Supreme Court has upheld this policy although it does not require the tenant to have any knowledge of the guest’s drug related activity.

A key element to the success of any post-conviction release is finding and maintaining housing. A so-called “feedback loop” is created whereby it becomes difficult to keep stable employment when one is homeless and difficult to keep a stable home if one is unemployed.[v] An often overlooked additional hurdle created by homelessness is that potential employers have no way to contact the potential employee and many of the jobs that are available are shift work with hours that occur after many shelter’s curfew.[vi]







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