Housing authorities can promote health and justice for returning citizens right now
- By Kate Walz, Vice President of Advocacy, Shriver Center on Poverty Law
- April 29, 2020
This piece also appears on the Shriver Center on Poverty Law's website.
Much of the country is subject to a stay-at-home order, meaning that home is the safest place for people to protect themselves and their families during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prisons and jails present significant public health risks to incarcerated individuals, correctional staff, and surrounding communities. To mitigate against these public health risks, Illinois and other states have been working on releasing individuals from jails and prisons.
Prisons and jails present significant public health risks to incarcerated individuals, correctional staff, and surrounding communities.
But the question of where returning citizens will live upon release has never been more urgent. Even before COVID-19, living with family offers one of the most affordable and stable housing options available. It is now even more critical to make this a viable option for protecting the safety of individuals, families, and their communities.
Public housing authorities can play an active role in this effort, especially with new authority from HUD. On April 10, 2020, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”) issued HUD PIH Notice 2020-05 which provides broad authority for public housing authorities that administer public housing and Housing Choice Voucher programs to automatically elect to waive, as of April 10, 2020, various regulatory and statutory provisions in response to COVID-19. No further HUD permission is required. Certain waivers and existing discretion could allow individuals to move into HUD assisted housing or to move into the homes of their loved ones. A description of the relevant waivers and opportunities is as follows:
- Housing authorities could immediately allow current tenants to add individuals to their household as a result of COVID-19, even if adding those individuals would normally result in the family being overcrowded. Individuals who have loved ones who already live in the Housing Choice Voucher or Project-Based Voucher programs could exit the correctional facilities and lawfully shelter in place with their family members for the lease term, or April 10, 2021, whichever is longer.
- Housing authorities could immediately change policies in their planning and rules documents, including altering criminal records screening criteria. Housing authorities could remove discretionary criminal records screening policies for individuals who were released early from the Illinois Department of Corrections and jails in its response to COVID-19. Housing authorities are required to deny admission in only two narrow situations: (1) where a person has been convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine on federally assisted property, and (2) where a person is subject to a lifetime registration requirement for a past sex offense. For all other types of criminal activity, housing authorities continue to have wide discretion.
- Housing authorities could also immediately amend guest policies to allow an individual to be a guest in the home for an extended period of time, without having to first meet tenant screening requirements. This may be the most immediate way to support families who want to help their loved ones exit prisons and jails and shelter in place with them.
The question of where returning citizens will live upon release has never been more urgent.
For individuals released early, the Illinois Department of Corrections and jails will have already determined that they should return to their communities, so a prolonged screening process is not necessary. Relaxing these policies to make it easier for residents to add family members to their lease will be especially critical given the shortage of available units. Returning citizens could simultaneously be encouraged to apply to be added to the household or apply to open waiting lists in order to secure their own housing. Housing authorities should adopt these changes and notify tenants and owners of these opportunities.
Housing authorities are not prohibited from admitting individuals who are on community supervision and still serving sentences out in the community, whether through temporary furlough, probation, parole, mandatory supervised release, court supervision, or on electronic monitoring.
Housing authorities already have significant discretion in applying their criminal records screening policies. Thus, a written policy change may not be necessary in some cases. Housing authorities should ensure that staff are properly trained to consider the applications of people who have been involved with the criminal legal system. By taking these steps, housing authorities would significantly contribute to the public health of their communities and advance family reunification.
For more information please contact Kate Walz at firstname.lastname@example.org or Patrice James at email@example.com.