By Marta Nelson and Jamie Rubin
Last month marked National Re-entry Week, which focused on breaking down barriers that keep formerly incarcerated people from leading productive lives and giving back to their communities. This is an important cause, and one that goes beyond just one week – because believing in second chances requires taking action to create them. The sad truth is formerly incarcerated people regularly experience discrimination in our society. That must change.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development took one important action to improve the re-entry environment last month, announcing guidelines that made it clear that blanket discrimination against people with criminal records violates the Fair Housing Act by having a discriminatory effect on racial minorities, especially African-Americans and Latinos. HUD’s guidelines note that housing providers can still ensure resident safety and protect their property without using discriminatory screening practices.
We commend HUD for taking this step, and are proud that New York was an early leader on this front. Last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo acted to ensure that under New York’s Fair Housing Guidelines, applicants for housing who have criminal backgrounds cannot be turned down based solely on the fact that they have a conviction, and the fact that they have an arrest – which does not constitute proof of unlawful conduct – is not to be considered at all. Instead, the focus is on each person as an individual and how both their conviction and what they have done with their lives since that conviction affect their ability to be good tenants and neighbors.
If we accept blanket housing discrimination, we are consigning millions of people to either a shadow existence of evading legal tenancy, or to the streets. Either outcome is unacceptable. Do we want people with criminal histories concentrated in our homeless shelters or on our streets? No. To facilitate steady employment, sober living and strong family life, having a roof over one’s head is the best option.
That is why we hope HUD’s recent guidance is just the first of a series of actions by the federal government toward improving housing opportunities for the formerly incarcerated. We know that having a safe place to call home is crucial a person’s re-entry. We hope HUD will continue to build on its efforts to help us all fight housing discrimination – including for those who are or may soon become homeless upon their release from prison. Together we can create a safer and stronger society for all.
Marta Nelson is executive director of the Governor’s Council on Community Re-Entry and Reintegration. Jamie Rubin is commissioner of New York State Homes and Community Renewal.