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Report: Policies Keep People with Criminal Records Out of Public Housing

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Statistics show that of the 11 million people incarcerated yearly, about 15% have been homeless. Conversely, around 48,000 people going into homeless shelters each year come from prisons or jails.

A new report is calling for public housing authorities to change certain policies to prevent excluding people with criminal records.

The Prison Policy Initiative report found that some public-housing policies work against people who once were convicted, for instance, of using marijuana. While it's legal in Michigan, 36 other states and Washington D.C., the Department of Housing and Urban Development prohibits marijuana use in public housing since it's still illegal at the federal level.

Wanda Bertram, a communications strategist for the Prison Policy Initiative, said access to housing is critical to help people restart their lives.

"Someone coming out of prison might have a whole host of issues to work on," she said. "They might have a health issue, they may have a substance-use problem, they might have a mental illness. These are all issues that are disproportionately prevalent among people leaving prison. They might not have very many job prospects, but in order to begin tackling all of those problems, they need a place to live."

Studies have shown that in Michigan, public-housing authorities currently exclude 284,000 people with conviction histories - more than 3.5% of adults statewide. State regulations don't specifically exclude those with criminal convictions, but give local housing authorities "wide-ranging discretion" on rental decisions.

The report recommended that public housing authorities could be more inclusive by removing lengthy "look-back periods" in screening prospective renters, and issuing clear explanations about why a person was denied housing.

Bertram said changes to the appeals process would also aid people with criminal records.

"With public housing authorities there's always, in theory, an option to appeal if you're denied," she said. "There should be an option to have the authority review your case. Now, authorities need to make that option basically guaranteed to everybody who's denied, including people who are denied based on a criminal record."

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development issued guidance in 2022 to ensure that public-housing authorities don't exclude people on the basis of a criminal record. Still, there's no clear picture of whether state and local housing agencies are following the guidance.