We were excited to read this NPR article earlier this month, which details HUD's new guidance for landlords and home sellers who conduct criminal background checks on applicants.
HUD asserts that although there are some situations where it makes sense to deny access to your housing based on criminal record, blanket policies may in fact be discriminatory. In this assertion, they recognize that our criminal-legal system has inherent disparities in arrest and conviction, disproportionately affecting people of color. Although African-Americans make up about 12% of the U.S. population, they account for 36% of our prison population. African-American men are imprisoned at a rate nearly six times that of white men. Obviously, that system needs to be addressed in its own right. However, it is groundbreaking for HUD to instruct landlords to recognize this and to shift their own policies to adjust for this disparity.
Being homeless puts people in a position where they are more likely to have contact with the police. This added contact means that many of the people we serve end up with extensive criminal backgrounds including charges like trespassing, retail theft, and possession of controlled substances. Their rap sheets are used as justification for issuing more harsh penalties and compound the difficulties they have seeking housing. The prevalence of criminal backgrounds is not just a problem among people experiencing homelessness. As the article asserts, one in four Americans have a criminal background. Frequently, background checks uncover arrests that did not lead to a conviction. This puts people into a system that asserts they’re only innocent until accused. In addition, historical incidents come up in background checks that don't reflect who our participants currently are and what they are doing with their lives. These old convictions should not continue to impact someone's life when they have already served their time, but they do.
In Housing First programs, we should view landlords as partners. Many of the landlords who partner with our agencies to house our participants see themselves as doing more than just managing a property and collecting rent. They are community members too and a vital part of helping to end homelessness. As providers, we have an opportunity to connect with landlords and advocate for alternatives to blanket policies of denying people with criminal backgrounds. HUD suggests that "landlords should have a policy that takes into consideration what the crime was and when it happened, as well as other factors, to reduce the discriminatory impact." We applaud this guidance and it gives us hope for our case managers to have an easier time locating affordable and decent housing for the people we work with.