New Orleans to Re-Write Policy on Housing and Criminal Convictions

After months of pushing the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) regarding a specific change in their Admissions and Evictions policies, a public hearing is scheduled for tomorrow night (Tues. 1/22/13), at HANO, 4100 Touro Street.  This effort was spearheaded by grassroots community members of two organizations, Stand With Dignity and Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE).  SWD has authored a Sign On letter expected to generate significant support among the social justice community, and VOTE’s written testimony pushes HANO uphold their mission to help all families, in accordance with civil rights law.  Community members are encouraged to testify.

On January 5th, 2013, HANO issued a draft “Criminal Background Policy Statement,” and notice for a public hearing.  A preamble to the statement references a Washington Post article that outlines the ignored plight of black males in America.[1]  HANO recognizes the lifelong label of “felon” is “an almost automatic bar to gainful work” and a “likely bar to admission to most affordable housing.”[2]

“HANO recognizes that, whether explicit or implicit, its practices have served to perpetuate the problem.  As the city’s major provider of affordable housing and of safe and healthy communities, HANO accepts that it has a responsibility to give men and women with criminal histories the opportunity to rejoin their families and communities and to rejoin them as productive members.”[3]

This represents a major shift in policy, recognizing the problem and the agency’s role in perpetuating discrimination and unstable communities.  The proposed Policy Statement, however, remains problematic.[4]

hud-website-photo-2HANO’s Proposed Policy Statement | 2013

Although lacking in specifics, the statement outlines key points:

  • All individuals, regardless of criminal history shall have equal access to employment and housing at HANO[5]
  • Automatic Bars to HANO:
    1. Pose a clear and present danger to community in which they might live;
    2. Criminal history includes acts of child abuse or sexual predation;
    3. History of domestic violence.

Reviewing “clear and present danger”:

  • Panel will evaluate all factors presented
  • Decision based on propensity for continued disruptive/criminal behavior, or probability or favorable future conduct.

This vague policy, in practice, may serve to broaden the pool of admissions denials and convictions, depending on:

(1) How “clear and present danger” is defined;

(2) How broadly they determine the scope of sex crimes;[6]

(3) What is meant by “history of domestic violence;”

(4) The composition of the review panel, and

(5) What guidance is used to analyze the factors.

HANO may ultimately bar people who were convicted of misdemeanors or who merely had the police respond to an alleged domestic violence scenario.  The detailed policy, if one is forthcoming, is yet to be written.  It remains to be seen what impact public pressure will have to alleviate draconian restrictions.

National Efforts to Amend Exclusion Policy

New-Orleans-home-demolition-sign-Housing-is-a-Human-Right1Courts and agencies have been asymmetrically moving in the same direction undertaken by New Orleans.  In Chicago, for instance, the state appeals court held that arrests, alone, are incapable of constituting a “history of criminal activity” and was not evidence that someone is a potential threat to the health, safety, and welfare of the public housing community.[7]  Despite all the arrests ending in dismissals, this man was barred from housing.

Reports on homelessness are also taking in to account criminal records, such as a 2003 survey finding 1 in 8 homeless adults in Minnesota had been released from prison within the past two years.[8]  A report on Illinois’ public housing identified four key areas for reform:

(1) The number of years to look back for past criminal activity;

(2) The use of arrests without convictions as proof of criminal activity;

(3) Use of vague categories neither applicants nor administrators can fully understand and apply fairly; and

(4) Absence of mitigating circumstances as a means to overcome barriers.[9]

The recent developments from HUD indicate a possibility that sustained efforts (including litigation, organizing, journalism, and studies) may propel a new set of national standards.  HUD first publicly dispelled the myths regarding barriers to public housing,[10] then reiterated this in a letter to all PHA executive directors- along with the stated commitment to helping ex-offenders gain access to housing.[11]

It is more accurate to perceive the arc of HUD as a natural arc of the War on Drugs than of political party preferences.  The agency has at times been trying to dismantle the PHAs’ discretionary exclusion regimes through HUD guidance, including admonitions that screening applicants is very difficult where criminal histories are mixed or marginal.[12]  HUD guidance calls for trained staff to sometimes gather additional information and intervention by outside agencies.[13]  Instead, HUD has watched the develop of blanket bans several decades in the making.[14]

HUD recognizes the look-back periods PHAs use are at times draconian, failing to take in account the principle of completing one’s punishment.  They have recommended that the term “recently” be defined as the past month or six months,[15] and discourage excluding former drug users and alcohol abusers, particularly where rental histories show a propensity for compliance.[16]  They have also advised PHAs to make case-by-case reviews, focusing on concrete evidence of seriousness, recentness of criminal activity, and evidence of rehabilitation, as best predictors of tenant suitability.[17]

Contemplate and Create the Dream.

Contemplate and Create the Dream.

[1] Gerson, Michael (uncited), “mid-December 2012,” Washington Post.

[2] DRAFT HANO Criminal Background Policy Statement, 1/05/13, at 1.

[3] Id.

[4] Id., at 2.

[5] HANO’s policy statement includes reference to employment which mirror housing eligibility,  This poses another problem, although it will not be addressed here.

[6] Currently, all people on the Sex Registry (regardless of level) are barred- including their families.  This is similar to Chicago.  See, e.g., CHICAGO HOUSING AUTHORITY, FY2010 ADMISSIONS AND CONTINUED OCCUPANCY POLICY, 14 (approved Sept. 21, 2010) (denying admission to applicants who have ―ever been convicted of a crime that requires them to be registered under a state sex offender registration program including the ten-year Illinois State Sex Offender Registration Act‖).

[7] Landers v. Chicago Housing Authority, 936 N.E.2d 735, at 742 (Ill. App. Ct. 2010).

[8] Wilder Research, Ex-Offenders Among the Homeless: Highlights From The 2003 Minnesota Survey of Homelessness 1 (June 2006).

[9] Marie Claire Tran-Leung, Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, When Discretion Means Denial: The Use of Criminal Records to Deny Low-Income People Access to Federally Subsidized Housing in Illinois, 3, 10-27 (August 2011).  The author would like to acknowledge Ms. Tran-Leung for her work as being an essential foundation to this report.

[10] Federal Interagency Reentry Council, Reentry Mythbuster on Public Housing (2011), er_Housing.pdf.

[11] Letter from Shaun Donovan, Secretary, United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, to Public Housing Authority Executive Directors (Jun. 17, 2011), available at [hereinafter Donovan Letter].

[12] HUD, PUBLIC HOUSING OCCUPANCY GUIDEBOOK 73 (June 2003), available at

[13] Id.

[14] John W. Barbrey, Measuring the Effectiveness of Crime Control Policies in Knoxville’s Public Housing: Using Mapping Software to Filter Part I Crime Data, 20 JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY CRIMINAL JUSTICE 6, 15 (2004) (describing how the public housing authority in Knoxville, Tennessee would deny admission to applicants even if they had never been convicted of a crime out of a desire to err on the side of caution).


[16] ee, e.g., PUBLIC HOUSING OCCUPANCY GUIDEBOOK, supra note 9, at 92.


About Bruce Reilly

Bruce Reilly is the Deputy Director of Voice of the Ex-Offender in New Orleans, LA. He is a graduate of Tulane Law School and author of NewJack's Guide to the Big House. Much of his writing can be found on
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