| By Afomeia Tesfai |
For individuals with a criminal history, finding affordable and stable housing becomes extremely difficult in a place like the Bay Area, with high cost and limited supply. People with a criminal history can legally be excluded from housing. In a survey from the 2015 Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Forward Together report, “Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families,” 79% of people who had been incarcerated were either ineligible or denied public housing as a result of criminal history. More than half of those released from jail or prison have unstable or nonexistent housing.
Safe and affordable housing is a fundamental basis for success in all areas of life, and without stable housing, an individual’s health, employment and education opportunities, family reunification and social networks are compromised. In Alameda County, California, nearly 20,000 people are at risk of residential instability because of having a recent criminal history.
Having housing improves health directly and indirectly, decreases recidivism, improves the chance of becoming employed and having more income, and helps with family reunification. These factors, known in public health as the social determinants of health, create opportunities to succeed and are known to be important for health and wellbeing. For example:
- Moving often affects recidivism. The odds of recidivism increase by at least 70% for every time someone who is formerly incarcerated changes their residence.
- Six randomized control trials analyzed supported employment in public housing against other approaches to help residents find jobs, and found 58% of public housing program participants obtained employment compared to 21% in the control group.
- More than 70% of those leaving prison indicated that family is an important factor in keeping them out of prison, and up to 82% of people leaving prison or jail expect to live with or get help from their families.
- Having stable housing upon leaving jail or prison decreases a person’s chance of having their probation revoked.
It’s clear from the research; the lack of stable and affordable housing forces families to frequently move and live in unhealthy and crowded environments, increases stress and depression, and can lead to homelessness. Homelessness brings higher rates of infectious diseases; substance use and mental health disorders; exposure to violence; overexposure to cold and rain; and suicide. Studies show that 25% to 50% of people who are homeless have histories of involvement with the criminal justice system.
Public housing admissions screening policies play an important role in creating the conditions for successful reentry of people who were incarcerated. HIP recently released a report called, “The Long Road Home: Decreasing Barriers to Public Housing for People with Criminal Records” done in partnership with Ella Baker Center for Human Rights (EBC). I worked closely with EBC staff starting in September 2015 to complete this Health Impact Assessment (HIA), as part of my Health & Equity Fellowship with HIP. We studied the Oakland Housing Authority (OHA) as a case study to understand the impacts of screening policies on health.
To fully understand OHA’s admission and screening policies, HIP met with two staff from their office. We learned that OHA denials due to a criminal history in the first round of screening have decreased significantly from 12% to 0.8% between 2010 and 2012. Of those who were screened out by OHA due to a criminal history, 75% request an informal hearing, and 64% of those have the decision reversed, allowing them to continue on in the application process. This is a powerful statement for the presentation of mitigating circumstances; at OHA, when people are allowed to tell their story and present supporting documentation, it often results in a reversal. We know that historical policies have created racial inequities in housing and health outcomes. However, data on race and ethnicity is not being recorded or reported, making it impossible in OHA’s case to analyze inequities in screening practices.
While more people with criminal histories are able to move forward in the screening process when OHA allows them to present mitigating evidence, there are additional changes OHA and other public housing authorities can make to improve housing stability for individuals with criminal history:
- Allow mitigating circumstances to be presented in the initial application for public housing
- Ensure proper implementation of policies that allow individuals with criminal history to join their family in public housing, and eliminate any practices of evicting existing residents from public housing for allowing a family member returning from prison or jail or denying admission if there is no valid reason for doing so
- Collect, track, and publicly report the race and ethnicity of applicants and those screened out due to their criminal history to examine the potential impact of screening policies on people of color with a criminal history