Stigmatization is just one of the hurdles preventing people from stable housing once they’re released from the criminal justice system. Here’s how we can change that.
- By Written by Lauren Kataja, MPC Harris Fellow. Advised by Kendra Freeman
- August 18, 2020
Nearly 28,000 Illinoisans are released from the criminal justice system each year. A new report by the Heartland Alliance captures how the punishment does not end once the time is served: Those with records face a lifetime of barriers to independence and stability. Without steady housing, a justice-involved person can consistently struggle with finding a job, finishing education, and accomplishing other milestones that could propel them toward independence. These challenges often become so overwhelming to a person’s stability that they can end up falling into the State's current 40% recidivism rate.
Legal protections for justice-involved tenants are a step in the right direction to provide equitable access to safe and stable housing for all Illinoisans. That’s why the Re-Entry Task Force, a group expanding housing opportunities for those leaving the Illinois Department of Corrections, values the implementation of legal clauses in Cook County and Urbana, IL, as well the recent groundbreaking announcement by the Housing Authority of Champaign County, all of which serve to limit the ability for private landlords to use past justice-involvement as an excuse to deny an applicant.
But people searching for housing in areas without these localized progressive legal protections need more options to combat the stigma many landlords have regarding renting to justice-involved tenants.
Local municipalities must do more to support the re-entry population in finding safe and secure housing, an effort which starts with incentivizing landlords to rent to those with justice-involvement. Many incentive options exist, and could include:
Vouchers – Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) programs offer built-in incentives for landlords in the form of guaranteed monthly payments. There are only two federal mandates limiting the ability for justice-involved individuals to qualify for the HCV program, but local housing authorities (PHAs) can be more stringent on their requirements. Many PHAs craft pilot programs to address these barriers, such as the Chicago Housing Authority's Family Reunification Program, but without mandatory education for HCV owners and landlords addressing their underlying stigmas, vouchers fall short in addressing the discrimination justice-involved tenants face from landlords in the private market.
Support toward independence – Property managers have expressed uncertainty in renting to the re-entry population due to fears that tenants might become dependent on old social networks for financial stability, which could create a domino of repercussions for other tenants in the building. A Safe Haven uses a multi-pronged approach to stabilize clients in preparation for independence. Transitional housing programs like these provide tenants with case management services, housing, and meals during the search for a permanent place to live. Introducing a behavior certificate program could show landlords that potential tenants have been connected to resources that will allow them to separate themselves from their past lives and move toward independence. Other ideas include letters of support for tenants from local court judges, such as the Cook County pilot program with Judge Burns’ Drug Court, as well as graduation certificates from good-tenant classes, which could be completed in the last months of a sentence.
Fund for damages and vacancies – A Landlord Risk Mitigation Fund provides added protection for landlords who are willing to rent to “risky” tenants, such as those with poor rental history or justice involvement. Funds in Denver, Orlando, Portland, and Seattle offer reimbursement for property damages, unit holding fees, and unpaid rent, among other risks. Local Chicagoland property owners say that sometimes the cost of a bad tenant can snowball, creating negative consequences throughout the entire building. While eviction should never be the first action when dealing with a difficult tenant, the possibility of having the financial support available should the problem escalate was enticing for property owners.
Employer-assisted housing benefits for justice-involved renters – Illinois provides a tax credit for employers who hire justice-involved workers; these employers have the opportunity to create stable employees by providing housing support in the form of one-time, lump-sum rental assistance. Experts who have studied our current corrections programs agree that every individual leaving prison needs three key things: employment, housing, and healthcare. Employers who invest in the stability of their employees will reap the benefits in the long-term.
Social services guide – Supportive housing is often necessary for justice-involved tenants to acclimate back to society. A re-entry pilot program in three counties in Washington provided each of the program participants with self- sufficiency plans to address issues related to high-risk offender behavior that may arise for landlords, neighbors, or the community. A common concern among Chicagoland property managers is the lack of support that often exists for their subsidized tenants, which can create disturbances within the unit and throughout the building. Current case managers are overworked and underfunded, but a formal and reliable social services network could provide stability in the transition of re-entry while lowering the inherent risk of renting to high-need tenants.
Having a place to live is the building block for creating stability in anyone's life, but especially for those who are recently released from the criminal justice system. A home address is usually required to apply for jobs, government assistance, and a bank account, but too often those with justice-involved histories find it increasingly difficult to be approved for a place to stay by private-market landlords.
A just society needs to provide for society’s most vulnerable, and our inability to achieve this has come at a steep cost for the re-entry population. Decades of media-fueled stereotypes have created a false notion of what kind of behavior landlords can expect from justice-involved tenants, causing many of them to refuse to rent to the re-entry population. By providing incentives, landlords could be convinced to be more willing to “take a risk” and offer a life-changing opportunity for those being released from the criminal justice system, by providing them with a place to call home.
Lauren Kataja is pursuing her Masters of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, where she is broadly interested in urban, social, and health policy, and how community-informed policy can create healthy and equitable economic opportunities in city’s most disinvested neighborhoods.