For more than 60 years, advocacy coalitions in New York state such as the Fortune Society and the Osborne Association have worked to help people with criminal records obtain stable housing. But these same advocates have little hope for New York policymakers’ latest bill reconciliation, despite efforts by local lawmakers to address housing discrimination against the previously incarcerated in public housing. 

When state legislators passed Senate Bill S6895A in June 2022, they did so with the hope that it would reduce housing discrimination against people with a criminal record by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). However, once they started hearing from organizers from the Osborne Association and the Fortune Society, lawmakers realized there was a loophole that allows federal housing law to perpetuate the discrimination the state law was designed to prevent. 

Policymakers began to collaborate on new amendments to the bill, including one amendment stipulating that the NYCHA must disclose the list of convictions used to reject tenant applications. These amendments remain under discussion between the New York State Assembly, Senate, and governor’s office, but advocates are not optimistic about these patchwork remedies.

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grants NYCHA the discretion to ensure residents’ safety and security. Currently, the agency rejects applicants who have been convicted of one or more offenses included on an internal list of 160 disqualifying offenses, ranging from misdemeanor drug charges to felony money laundering. (The original number of crimes that would bar potential residents from admission was 397; however, after facing much criticism, NYCHA reduced that number to 160.)  

Wendell Walters, policy manager for the Osborne Association, explained that NYCHA’s decrease in barrable offenses falls short when it comes to granting the formerly incarcerated access to housing.

“So they’ve softened their rules a little,” Walters said. “In my opinion, it hasn’t gone far enough.”

Assemblyman Kenny Burgos, a sponsor of the bill, believes those with criminal records should be given a chance and that they are not a danger to other tenants. “As I could see the housing crisis in New York, it came to my attention that NYCHA discriminates, essentially, from people accessing the most affordable housing in New York City,” Burgos said. “I thought it was outrageous, so I had to put it in a bill and try to change this.”

Lawmakers realized there was a loophole that allows federal housing law to perpetuate the discrimination the state law was designed to prevent.

Lily Shapiro, policy counsel at the Fortune Society, said the bill fails to target the reason NYCHA turns people away in the first place. “It says that no one shall be denied occupancy and public housing, or [be] subjected to eviction, on the grounds that that person is formerly incarcerated, which sounds good,” Shapiro said. “However, those are not the grounds on which NYCHA denies people housing. They deny people housing based on their convictions, and you can have a conviction and never have been incarcerated.”

Walters shares Shapiro’s concerns about the bill and believes this will render the bill useless.“But this bill won’t do anything at all,” Walters said. “The bill doesn’t make [the NYCHA] do anything.”

Iziah Thompson, senior policy analyst for the Community Service Society of New York, agrees with advocates on the shortcomings of the current policy, but added that the relationship NYCHA has with federal law complicates things. He says the bill cannot supersede federal law even though NYCHA is given discretion by the federal government to set admissions standards, leaving the interpretation of the bill up to the housing authority. 

“The way they worded it isn’t the most useful and, therefore, may not do what they think it does,” Thompson said. “We’re still kind of waiting on how NYCHA is going to interpret it.”

The unresolved housing issue is also a public safety issue, Walters said. “This is a public safety issue as well because of housing instability; there’s a good chance that you’re gonna be on the street,” Walters said. “And when you’re on the street, there is a level of desperation, which can lead to recidivism.”

When rapid re-housing rental subsidies were halted in 2011, the number of families that returned to shelter after being re-housed had risen by a staggering 179%, according to the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness

Anna Luft, a NYCHA tenants’ defense lawyer for the New York Legal Assistance Group, previously helped denied applicants challenge their denial by the NYCHA. 

“We should lower the barriers to public housing for people with criminal records [and] for families where there’s a member with a criminal record,” Luft said. “I think that NYCHA’s eligibility requirements should really just be at the bare minimum that’s required by HUD. They shouldn’t add extra on.” 

While the coalitions continue to voice their frustrations on the housing measure, they have high hopes for the NYC Fair Chance for Housing Act, a new city council bill designed to prohibit housing discrimination on the basis of one’s criminal record. 

While supporting and pushing for this city council bill, coalitions are still organizing around other approaches to addressing housing discrimination. For instance, Walters shared that the Osborne Association is working on a new initiative.

“We do have a program, but it’s a pilot program, being funded privately, called Kinship Reentry,” Walters said. “This is [for] the family who could potentially be in danger of [losing their] housing or some other kind of housing situation, but they’re willing to take a family member or loved one that was previously incarcerated back into the house.” 

The Kinship Reentry program offers funds of around $500 per month to families who choose to house people returning from incarceration. With the money comes extensive case management, counseling, required therapy sessions, and wrap-around programs to aid in the transition from living behind bars to free society.  

“We are part of the fabric of the community,” said Shapiro. “The people we serve are part of the fabric of the community where they live.”

Similar to the Osborne Association, the Fortune Society is working on initiatives they believe will secure housing for those with previous convictions. Fortune has developed and managed supportive housing (ie, affordable housing with supportive social services made available to tenants) in multiple locations around the city for people who have been involved in the justice system. They also run housing complexes where people with conviction histories live alongside people without them. 

“We are part of the fabric of the community,” said Shapiro. “The people we serve are part of the fabric of the community where they live.”

This work is not unique to New York City. Cities like Chicago and Los Angeles have passed similar legislation to prevent people with criminal records from being denied housing solely based on their background. In 2019, the Cook County Board of Commissioners in Chicago, a legislative body, passed the Just Housing Amendment to the Human Rights Ordinance, a measure to prevent criminal records from being the basis of tenant application denials. However, similar to New York’s law, the Chicago amendment does not prevent the examination of these records by landlords.

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Lauren Braithwaite was a Just Media fellow. She is currently studying political science and digital media and journalism at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where she is managing editor of the student newspaper, The John Jay Sentinel.