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New Housing Guidance Aims to Bolster Reentry for Returning Citizens

New Housing Guidance Aims to Bolster Reentry for Returning Citizens

In early April, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued a new guidance suggesting that, in certain cases, refusing to rent or sell a house or apartment to an individual with a criminal history could violate the Fair Housing Act. The guidance could make it easier for the millions of Americans living with a criminal record to find safe, affordable and steady housing.

The Fair Housing Act, passed as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, protects Americans from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status or national origin when attempting to rent or buy housing.

While ex-offenders are not a protected class under U.S. law, the HUD guidance makes clear that blanket bans on renting or selling to individuals with an arrest or conviction record constitutes a prohibited form of discrimination. According to HUD Secretary Julian Castro, the deep racial disparities of the criminal justice system mean that even a seemingly race neutral policy of not renting to formerly incarcerated people has a disparate impact on the ability of black and Latino Americans to secure housing, thereby violating the Fair Housing Act.

The new guidance does not, however, mean that landlords and property owners can never take criminal history into account. Rather, they must prove that they sufficiently examined the details of that history (How severe was the crime? How long ago did it occur? Did the arrest result in conviction?), and that there is a credible reason to believe that the tenant could pose a risk to public safety or to the property.

The civil rights community's response to the HUD guidance has been largely positive. But some have questioned how HUD will actually enforce its somewhat vague requirement that due diligence be done before denying housing to a returning citizen, and whether these rules will place an undue burden on landlords.

In 1989, the Union for Reform Judaism approved a resolution affirming that "decent, safe, and sanitary housing is a fundamental necessity of life to which all people are entitled." Mass incarceration, particularly of people of color and low-income people, and the lack of access to housing for citizens returning from prison have meant that large swaths of Americans have been denied access to this fundamental necessity. While the HUD guidance will not immediately eradicate discrimination against people with criminal records, it will provide significant support to those individuals as they attempt to reenter society and live meaningful and productive lives.

Image courtesy of Flickr/Steve Damron

Adam Waters is a 2015-2016 Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He grew up in Coral Springs, FL, and was a member of Temple Beth Orr. Adam graduated from Brown University.

Adam Waters