Next Arena for Criminal Justice Reform: A Roof Over Their Heads

NEW ORLEANS — When Thad Tatum was released from a Louisiana prison after serving 28 years for armed robbery and the attempted murder of a police officer, he found his trials were far from over.

Mr. Tatum, who has used a wheelchair since he was stabbed at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, has had to prove he could make it on the outside. He graduated from a program to help people with disabilities learn to live alone and met with a case manager for three months before he received a Section 8 voucher from the Housing Authority of New Orleans.

But when he tried to cash in that voucher, Mr. Tatum, 58, found it had been suspended — because of his conviction.

Bipartisan efforts to overhaul the criminal justice system, backed by President Trump, have so far focused on getting people out of prisons and thinning the largest population of incarcerated people in the world. Understandably so: In the toughest parts of New Orleans, some children are raised singing a nursery rhyme seemingly written to prepare them for incarceration at the penitentiary, better known as Angola.

But once released, some formerly incarcerated people struggle simply to find a place to live. Public housing authorities and private landlords refuse to rent to them, labeling them public safety risks, sending them to the streets, to homelessness — and often back to prison, for offenses like sleeping in public spaces and panhandling.

“It was a heartbreaking thing,” Mr. Tatum said.

Three years ago, the housing agency in New Orleans, acting on new guidance from the Obama administration, made a change. The Department of Housing and Urban Development had notified housing agencies and owners of federally assisted housing that they could not use arrest records in admissions decisions. The notice was part of the administration’s overall goal to provide second chances for formerly incarcerated people: “The opportunity to secure an affordable, decent place to live is part of an effective second chance,” said the HUD secretary at the time, Julián Castro, who is now a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

So the Housing Authority of New Orleans shortened the length of an applicant’s past that would be subject to a criminal background check and created a process for interviewing applicants on a case-by-case basis. People with convictions would be reviewed by a three-person panel under guidance that would make clear distinctions between offenses.

Assault and battery and theft, for example, would prompt further review only if a person was applying within three years of conviction or one year of release from prison. Drug possession would demand further review only if the screening was coming within one year of conviction or release.

Multiple convictions within the previous 10 years would demand further review, but even then, an applicant would at least get a chance.

From August 2016 to March 2019, the Housing Authority of New Orleans received 52 panel review requests. Only one person has been denied.

“If you give people an opportunity to sit down and talk about the issues in a safe setting where you can really dig into ‘What was the issue? Is that still an issue?’ there’s really hardly anybody that you would say you wouldn’t move into public housing and Section 8,” said Maggie Merrill, the agency’s director of asset management.

But the vast majority of people on housing assistance are not given apartments in traditional public housing but instead vouchers to rent from private landlords. Even people who clear the housing authority’s review process might find themselves denied a roof over their heads after landlords conduct their own background checks.

“If you’re a landlord that’s on our voucher list as someone that accepts our vouchers, and we’ve issued a voucher, I don’t feel that the private landlords should be doing yet another background check,” said Dolfinette Martin, a resident representative who sits on the review panel and is the operations manager at Operation Restoration, a nonprofit that advocates for women who were formerly incarcerated.

Before Earl Hagans, 44, was released from prison after a five-year drug possession sentence, he dreamed about life on the outside.

“I go home, you know, looking good,” he said. “I’m going to get the nice job. The house. We get the girl. Man, I thought it was going to be smooth.”

It has not worked out that way. He moved into his sister’s spare bedroom until their father, who has Alzheimer’s, moved in, sending Mr. Hagans to the couch.

He tried to get help from Volunteers of America of Southeast Louisiana, which provides residential re-entry services. But “you had to be homeless in order to get a place there,” he said.

He recently did get his own place, but he bears the scars of his struggle. “The housing issue is so big for people coming home because we live under this reign of being dictated: ‘You can’t live here. You got to live where I tell you to live,’” he said.

In New Orleans, landlords are within their legal rights to conduct their own criminal background checks, but several other cities and locales — such as Seattle, Newark and Cook County, Ill. — have ordinances that limit how private landlords can determine admission decisions based on criminal records.

The issue has even reached the 2020 presidential race. Senator Kamala Harris, Democratic of California and a White House hopeful, and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, released the Fair Chance at Housing Act, which would require public housing authorities and owners to consider all mitigating circumstances when making screening determinations based on criminal activity.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, who is also running for president, has proposed criminal justice measures that would help reduce the “collateral consequences that hamper re-entry to formerly incarcerated people who have served their time — from restrictions to occupational licensing to housing to the disenfranchisement of over three million returning citizens.”

Kiana Calloway, 41, a housing organizer for Voice of the Experienced, a nonprofit that advocates for formerly incarcerated people, is pressing for New Orleans to adopt an ordinance similar to other cities’.

When Mr. Calloway was released after a 17-year prison sentence for two counts of first-degree murder — which he began serving when he was 16 — he applied to more than 10 apartment complexes in Jefferson and Orleans Parishes. The landlords never replied. For four years, Mr. Calloway slept on his mother’s sofa.

“Why let me out of prison if I can’t live like a citizen?” Mr. Calloway said.

Roy Brumfield, 45, on probation and living in a transitional home for people with mental health issues, said he is hesitant even to apply for housing when he sees a question about an applicant’s criminal background.

“Why pay $25 for an application fee when you know you’re going to get turned down?” he said.

Sara Pratt, a civil rights lawyer and former fair housing official at HUD, said all landlords should “take the lead on being responsible on this and should take a second look at what reasonable criteria are.” But for all of the local efforts underway, she added, the answer was already on the books: the Fair Housing Act. It just needs to be enforced.

The Obama housing department issued a notice in 2016 telling both public and private landlords that the use of convictions in admissions decisions could be considered a violation of the law.

“African-Americans and Hispanics are arrested, convicted and incarcerated at rates disproportionate to their share of the general population,” the notice said. “Consequently, criminal records-based barriers to housing are likely to have a disproportionate impact on minority home seekers.”

The Trump administration is searching for a new course. “Being arrested should not be the sole basis to deny a person housing,” said Hunter Kurtz, HUD’s assistant secretary for public and Indian housing. He added that public housing authorities should “balance the critical housing needs of those with arrest records with the legitimate safety and security needs of their residents.”

“If HUD learns that public housing agencies are not striking this proper balance,” he said, “we will take the appropriate actions.”

Oliver Francis, 66, has just started the application process. While in prison, he taught self-help programs and coached people preparing for re-entry. But he is aware that landlords may reject his housing applications because of his 1978 conviction of first-degree murder, a crime for which he served nearly 42 years in Angola.

“I’m still paying for something that I already done paid for,” said Mr. Francis, who lives with his sister.

After getting released after 28 years in Angola, Mr. Tatum earned a degree in psychology from Southern University. He now works as a case manager at the Advocacy Center, which administered the program he graduated from, and he lives by himself in a unit his family owns.

“Once you come home, you paid your dues to society and you should be able to function or be able to at least have the opportunity to function like any other normal citizen,” he said.

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