New Bill Would Lift Some Restrictions On Federal Housing For People With Criminal Records

Kamala Harris and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are pushing to reduce recidivism and homelessness by helping ex-offenders find stable housing.

WASHINGTON ― Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) are teaming up on legislation to make it easier for people with criminal records to obtain federal housing assistance.

The bill, titled the Fair Chance at Housing Act of 2019, seeks to reform the federal government’s eviction and screening policies so individuals with a criminal history have a better shot at getting and keeping public housing.

The two prominent progressives are hoping to reduce recidivism and homelessness by helping ex-offenders find stable housing in the wake of the failed War on Drugs, which contributed to a disproportionate increase in the incarceration rate of U.S. minorities.

Under current law, applicants for public housing or Section 8 vouchers may be rejected by housing authorities if a background check reveals drug-related crimes or violent crimes in their record. Public housing beneficiaries can also be evicted if they are convicted of a crime, no matter how minor. 

The Fair Chance at Housing Act would loosen those guidelines somewhat by banning evictions based on a single incident of past criminal activity, instead requiring authorities to make decisions based on “a holistic review” of a tenant’s record. The bill would also do away with a current policy that allows an entire family to be evicted for criminal activity committed by a guest.

“Too many people become involved in our criminal justice system and serve their time only to return home to face additional barriers to employment, education, and housing,” Harris, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, said in a statement.

“As our country continues working toward much-needed reform of our criminal justice system, I am proud to work with Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez to ensure formerly incarcerated individuals and their families have access to safe and affordable housing as they transition back into their community,” she added. “By requiring a higher standard of evidence and a more holistic review process, we are taking a significant step toward giving Americans a fair chance to succeed.”

Harris has emphasized criminal justice reform as part of her pitch to voters, recently releasing a proposal that aims to close the pay gap between public defenders and prosecutors. But she has faced criticism from some on the left, who say her record as a prosecutor in California contradicts her rhetoric on criminal justice reform.

The bill introduced by Harris and Ocasio-Cortez on Wednesday would also make public housing authorities be fairer to applicants who are denied housing assistance due to past criminal activity by giving them written notice and an opportunity to appeal a decision. 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)

The collaboration between Harris and Ocasio-Cortez is notable given the state of the crowded Democratic race for president, which includes several candidates ― including Harris ― vying for support from the party’s left. While Ocasio-Cortez has not yet backed a candidate in the race, the Democratic congresswoman’s endorsement will be highly sought after. She has already indicated that she could endorse Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), both of whom are running on progressive platforms.

“I am proud to join Senator Harris in introducing the Fair Chance at Housing Act,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a separate statement Wednesday. “This legislation is one of many steps that need to be taken to repair our broken criminal justice system. ... Denying housing to those that have been formerly incarcerated increases recidivism. Today we are taking a step to make our communities safer.”

The bill is supported by a wide array of public housing, civil rights, and health advocacy groups, including the NAACP, National Low Income Housing Coalition, National Housing Law Project, Human Rights Watch, National Alliance on Mental Illness and the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

“This legislation represents an essential step toward reducing recidivism by helping ex-offenders find stable housing upon exiting a jail or prison and by keeping their family free from punishment by association,” Hilary O. Shelton, the head of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau, said in a statement.

Sarah Mickelson, public policy director at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, commended Harris and Ocasio-Cortez for leading on the issue.

“By ensuring that returning citizens have a real opportunity to access federal housing assistance and rejoin their families and communities, this bill reduces the obstacles to housing that often prevent people from getting back on their feet after serving their time in jails or prisons,” Mickelson said in a statement.