Housing Creates Hurdles for Returning Citizens

The FWD #161  •  727 Words

With Guest Author Cynthia Nwarache of OAR Richmond

Many formerly incarcerated people still face a life sentence: housing discrimination.

Imagine losing months or years of your life due to a bad decision you may have made—or something you had no choice in at all. This is a reality for 1 in every 38 Americans who are either in prison, jail, on probation, or on parole. Now, imagine what it might take to reenter society if given the chance. As a population group, incarcerated individuals and returning citizens face higher rates of unemployment, chronic illness, homelessness, and mental health problems. 

OAR of Richmond is a community leader in reentry services whose mission is to provide evidence-based and person-centered approaches to empower those impacted by incarceration. One of the many obstacles faced by individuals reentering society is finding safe, stable housing. 

Returning citizens face many barriers when seeking sustainable, affordable, and safe housing. Often, a criminal record serves as a lifelong conviction, and deprives individuals of the second chances they have earned. Working on reentry issues has afforded us the opportunity to build rapports with some of the most driven and motivated individuals in our community. Contrary to stereotypes, returning citizens want to move forward and integrate successfully back into society. They want to thrive. They want to be able to provide for themselves and their families. They want a second chance to get it right. 

Unfortunately, heavy stigmas associated with incarceration lead to discriminatory practices and policies against returning citizens. These obstacles make it difficult for many to move forward. Securing and maintaining safe, adequate housing is one of the most important agenda items for returning citizens. Housing is a social determinant of health and a basic human need. Without housing, recidivism becomes much more likely. We and many others have been fortunate enough to not know what it feels like to be unsheltered and unsure of where your next meal will come from. We invite you to really think about it. Being an ally in housing means being an ally in criminal justice; they are intersecting and inseparable issues. 

The Fair Housing Act does not include persons with criminal records as a protected class. People with criminal convictions are therefore easily disqualified for many housing options, regardless of their ability to pay. This extra layer of prejudice—especially for Black men and other persons of color overrepresented in the criminal justice system—amplifies existing patterns of discrimination and tightens the window of opportunity for Virginians reentering society.

What can we do as allies?

To overcome this challenge, we must be ready to integrate people with criminal records into our community. We can use our platforms to advocate for real second chances and opportunities for returning citizens. Rather than sentencing returning citizens to a lifetime of being judged by their biggest mistakes, we can choose to shift our cultural, individual, and institutional norms in a direction that is more rehabilitative and inclusive by nature. We must put an end to housing discrimination against returning citizens. Here are two ways to help: 

1. Connect housing providers with re-entry providers.

Passed in Congress in April 2008, The Second Chance Act represents a federal investment in strategies to reduce recidivism and increase public safety, as well as to reduce corrections costs for state and local governments. Additionally, there are hundreds of reentry organizations in the United States helping incarcerated individuals make a safe and stable return back into society. 

We must expand connections between housing providers and service providers to break the cycle of incarceration and homelessness. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness has a tip sheet with ways for corrections agencies, reentry service providers, state and local governments, and community partners to help people exiting the criminal justice system connect with available housing resources. 

2. Educate landlords and PHAs on criminal records. 

In 2015, HUD released a guidance document on housing and criminal records. The first directs public housing authorities (PHAs) to not use arrest records alone to deny housing. PHAs must take a holistic look at someone’s background before denying them housing. The second tells landlords that using criminal records to make housing decisions violates the Fair Housing Act if their use results in housing disparities by race, national origin, or other protected class.

It’s important to ensure that this guidance is known and followed. We must find ways to work with landlords and PHAs to lower barriers to housing. 

OAR of Richmond is a nonprofit organization made up of staff members and volunteers who provide person-centered reentry services to the Richmond community. The work done at OAR is a collaborative effort, as participants, employees, community partners, and volunteers all work together to support  participants in reaching their goals and with integrating successfully back into the community post incarceration. 

Cynthia Nwarache is a Reentry Services Casemanager and Advocacy Coordinator at OAR. In her roles, she is committed to advocating on behalf of OAR participants to influence positive changes in public policy as well as advocating for directly impacted individuals to not only be included in the conversation, but for their voices to be heard and centered. 

Whitney Brown was a VCU Wilder Fellow at HousingForward Virginia and is a volunteer at OAR. She is committed to empowering underserved communities and bringing social and racial equity to the forefront of all issues. 

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