The vital role of housing in successful reentry was reinforced during Second Chance Month this past April, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) took a significant step toward ensuring that millions of people returning from prison and jail have greater access to housing opportunities. In an April 12 memo, Secretary Marcia Fudge instructed every HUD program office to review and propose changes to all relevant regulations and guidance documents within six months in a comprehensive effort to reduce barriers to participation for people with criminal records.
“At HUD, we recognize that individuals with criminal histories too often face daunting and unnecessary barriers to obtaining and maintaining housing, including public housing, HUD-assisted housing, and HUD-insured housing, which are often the only types of housing they can afford,” said Secretary Fudge in her memo. “Too often, criminal histories are used to screen out or evict individuals who pose no actual threat to the health and safety of their neighbors. And this makes our communities less safe because providing returning citizens with housing helps them reintegrate and makes them less likely to reoffend.”
This memo builds on prior steps HUD has taken to reduce criminal record-related barriers to housing. For example, in 2016 the Office of General Council issued guidance to housing providers on the potential discriminatory impacts of overly broad screening criteria for previous incarceration. That guidance, while important, still left most decisions regarding the use of criminal records in eligibility determinations to the discretion of local housing providers. As a result, many providers continued to adopt policies that excluded people based on minor offenses or offenses that occurred many years in the past.
Secretary Fudge’s new directive lays the foundation for not only reducing those barriers, but also encourages housing providers to prioritize people with criminal records, even in light of a continuing affordable housing shortage nationwide. It also has the potential to directly impact federal policies and practices, given HUD’s intention of considering fundamental changes to the way its own programs operate. These include core programs, such as public housing and Housing Choice Vouchers, which comprise a substantial portion of America’s affordable housing inventory. And it complements other recent HUD guidance encouraging communities to serve people leaving the justice system with Emergency Housing Vouchers made available under the American Rescue Plan Act and to make HUD programs more equitable by addressing the overrepresentation of people who identify as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) experiencing both homelessness and justice involvement.
Justice system leaders can support HUD’s efforts by developing strong working relationships with affordable housing partners, emphasizing the shared population served by both systems. A good place to begin is by working with the local Continuum of Care (CoC) to increase the use of HUD-funded homeless assistance resources among people who have previously been incarcerated. In addition, justice system leaders can build partnerships with private landlords through strategies, such as targeted recruitment and financial guarantees, to increase the number of units available to help meet the housing needs of this population. These partnerships can greatly increase the chances that someone with a criminal record successfully uses a HUD voucher in a tight rental market and has access to safe, affordable housing—which, not only reduces chances of future incarceration, but also provides a platform for community stability and connections with employment, health care, and more.