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A criminal record is ‘a never-ending sentence’ for Cuyahoga County housing applicants, report says


Posted January 22, 2020
3:11 pm


Written by Jordyn Grzelewski in The Plain Dealer on 1/22/2020

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Malika Kidd found a job soon after being released from prison in 2015.

She quickly realized, however, that finding a place to live would be more difficult.

Her drug trafficking conviction, for which she had served a 14-year sentence, led to denial after denial from landlords. When she did find an apartment, her husband, who also has a criminal record, was not permitted to live there or even visit.

“It’s frustrating that you’re trying to do something better with your second chance, and you get these roadblocks that prevent it,” she said.

Cuyahoga County residents with criminal backgrounds often face these barriers, according to a report released today by the Reentry Housing Committee, an arm of the Greater Cleveland Reentry Leadership Coalition.

What the committee found is that a criminal conviction often comes with the additional penalty, or collateral consequence, of long-term exclusion from subsidized housing.

Titled, “A Never-Ending Sentence: The Impact of Criminal Conviction in Project-Based Section 8 Housing Tenant Selection Plans in Cuyahoga County,” the report looks at federally subsidized housing providers and how they screen for criminal backgrounds. The committee examined the screening policies from 108 of the county’s approximately 140 project-based Section 8 housing providers.

The report places the issue in the context of systemic racism, noting how discrimination in housing policy and the criminal-justice system puts black and Latinx applicants at a disproportionate disadvantage.

Take, for example, the 79,000 people in Ohio who are behind bars. Blacks are incarcerated at a rate of 2,336 per 100,000 people in that racial/ethnic group; for whites, that rate is 422, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

“Systemic racism plays a significant role in our local housing crisis through policies and practices of mass incarceration, police brutality, redlining, and evictions,” Kris Keniray, associate director of the Fair Housing Center for Rights & Research, said in a statement. “The findings and recommendations of this report are aimed at naming the impact of systemic racism in our local affordable housing market and offering a more equitable path forward.”

Kidd, who is black, feels the weight of what she calls the “three strikes” against her.

“I am a felon. I am a female. And I am African-American. So I have to work three times as hard as anybody else,” she said.

Today, Kidd, 45, owns her own home, has a bachelor’s degree, and is a program director at Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry. She works with incarcerated women in the Chopping for Change program, helping prepare them for the reality she faced when she got out of prison.

The report includes a number of recommendations for how to expand housing opportunities for people with criminal records, such as a “Clean Slate” ordinance, which other communities across the country have put in place to limit how landlords can screen for criminal convictions.

“I think we really have to think more about that, if we really believe that you commit a crime, you are given a sentence, and you complete your sentence,” Keniray said. “We are just furthering our divides by continuing to punish people after they’ve completed their sentences.”

WHAT DOES THE LAW REQUIRE?

Project-based Section 8 is a federal program that gives direct subsidies to landlords who provide affordable housing for low-income tenants. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires providers to write Tenant Selection Plans, or TSPs, which are policies outlining their criteria for assessing applicants. HUD does not, however, review or approve those plans, giving providers significant leeway in how they write their policies.

Providers do have some guidelines, though. In 2016, HUD released new guidance stating that, if a criminal background screening policy has a disparate impact on a protected class, it violates the Fair Housing Act. Rather than automatically denying an application based on a certain criminal conviction, housing providers should address concerns about an applicant by doing an individualized assessment of them, HUD says.

The Plain Dealer reached out to numerous housing providers for comment but did not hear back from most by deadline. A spokeswoman for CHN Housing Partners, a nonprofit affordable housing provider, said in a statement, "We worked with Legal Aid [Society of Cleveland] to develop our tenant selection guidelines a few years ago. We look forward to reviewing the recommendations in the upcoming report and I’m fairly certain we’ll be working with Legal Aid and other advocates in the future.”

LOCAL LANDSCAPE

None of the local providers analyzed in the report had a policy of providing an individualized assessment.

“The discretion that the TSPs afford to the housing providers typically tilts toward rejecting an applicant,” the report states. “Nearly all of the TSPs include the broad language that a housing provider may reject an applicant.”

Some of the other findings are:

• More than 76% of the properties surveyed said they may deny tenancy to people with a history of drug use.

• More than 78% may deny applicants with misdemeanor convictions.

• The majority of providers, 58 out of 108, said a misdemeanor conviction may make an applicant permanently ineligible to live there.

• Eighty percent may ban applicants with felony convictions.

• Fifty-six percent permanently disqualify applicants with any type of sex offense conviction.

IMPORTANCE OF STABLE HOUSING

The effect of these policies, the report states, is to prevent effective re-entry for people who have been incarcerated.

Christana Diaz Gamble, who served a prison sentence more than a decade ago, sees the effect of this in her work for the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and as a volunteer chaplain for people who are incarcerated.

Low-income people coming out of jail or prison often have nowhere to live. They are not allowed to join family members who live in subsidized housing. The county’s shelter system is chronically overcrowded. Waiting lists for affordable housing are months or even years long. Because of this, family reunions are delayed. Separations between children and parents are prolonged.

“The most important thing for a person coming home from prison, when they walk out of that gate, is that they have someone to support them and somewhere to go,” Gamble said. “Otherwise, it’s back into the streets.”

RECOMMENDATIONS

The report details a number of ways subsidized housing could be made more accessible to people with criminal backgrounds.

Recommendations include:

• Developing subsidies to promote landlords renting to people who have criminal backgrounds.

• Eliminating look-back periods.

• Following HUD’s guidance to individually assess applicants.

• Eliminating criminal convictions as grounds to disqualify an applicant.

• Ensuring criminal defendants are informed about the consequences a misdemeanor conviction might have on their housing opportunities.

Applicants who believe they have been unfairly denied housing can contact the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland via phone (English speakers: 216-687-1900). Additional contact information is available at lasclev.org/contact/. Contact the Fair Housing Center at 216-361-9240.

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