The head of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has instructed staff at the federal agency to look for ways to make it easier for people with criminal records to find housing.
In a memo sent on Tuesday and obtained by Inman, HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge told staffers they had six months to look for potential barriers to housing for persons with criminal histories.
“At HUD, we recognize that individuals with criminal histories too often face daunting and unnecessary barriers to obtaining and maintaining housing, including public housing, HUD assisted housing, and HUD-insured housing, which are often the only types of housing they can afford,” Fudge said in the memo, which was first reported by USA Today.
“Too often, criminal histories are used to screen out or evict individuals who pose no actual threat to the health and safety of their neighbors,” the memo continued.
The review will target ways to lower barriers through HUD regulations, guidance documents and other policies and sub-regulatory documents, according to the memo.
An estimated 73.5 million people have a criminal record, according to the Poynter Institute. That includes people charged with a felony and those with a misdemeanor whose state agency asks the FBI to keep a record on file.
The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, and minorities are incarcerated at higher rates than whites. That raises the specter that minorities face higher thresholds to find housing.
“We must understand the potential discriminatory impact exclusions based on criminal history can have on protected classes,” Fudge wrote.
In his first days in office, President Biden sent a memo to Fudge declaring it was his administration’s policy “to lift barriers that restrict housing and neighborhood choice, to promote diverse and inclusive communities, to ensure sufficient physically accessible housing, and to secure equal access to housing opportunity for all.”
Whereas federal housing laws protect from discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, color and more, the same protections don’t apply to people with criminal records.
Some felons can receive housing assistance through HUD, depending on the type of felony and state regulations, according to the group Help for Felons.
Felons who have been convicted of selling meth near public housing and people with a lifetime listing on the sex offender registry are ineligible to obtain the federal rental housing subsidy known as Section 8. The federal government pays for 70 percent of a tenant’s rent under the program.
Private landlords are also typically not required to accept a Section 8 voucher from a tenant, unless a state or local regulation requires it. Chicago and the state of Washington prohibit landlords from denying tenants based on sources of income, including public assistance.
It’s not immediately clear whether the rules HUD is considering would apply to private landlords, though it’s likely they would apply only to those whose tenants accept federal aid.
Staffers within the agency will send their findings to Richard Cho, a senior advisor at HUD, by Oct. 14. But Fudge directed the entire agency to make immediate changes to policies or documents currently under development “in a way that supports persons with criminal histories and their families.”
Citing an Obama-era memo that asked landlords to consider more than criminal history, Fudge called on landlords to make immediate changes.
“Put simply,” Fudge said, “it calls on landlords to treat people as individuals rather than reducing them to their criminal histories.”