United States Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Senate Democrats)
by Stacy M. Brown, For New Pittsburgh Courier
On July 10, California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced the introduction of their Fair Chance at Housing Act to remove barriers to obtaining federal housing assistance for individuals with criminal records and their families.
The proposal is a comprehensive reform of the eviction and screening policies so individuals with a criminal history have a fair chance at housing assistance.
The legislation aims to reduce recidivism by helping ex-offenders find stable housing and ensure that those currently receiving federal assistance are not unfairly evicted.In a release, the lawmakers said that for decades, the War on Drugs has done far more harm than good, wreaking havoc on American families through mass incarceration while having a very limited impact on rehabilitation.
“Moreover, these efforts have had profoundly disproportionate effects on minorities, who have historically been the primary target of harsh anti-drug policies,” they said.
The consequences of these now-debunked policies reach much farther than the doors of the nation’s prisons, Harris and Ocasio-Cortez said.
“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,” said Harris, a leading candidate for the 2020 presidential nomination.
“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,” Harris said.
“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,” she said.
Both Harris and Ocasio-Cortez said a criminal background can have lifelong implications for a person’s ability to obtain housing, employment, education, and to otherwise rebuild their lives.
Access to stable housing in particular is one of the most important first steps to rehabilitation, but federal laws continue to pose unnecessary and punitive barriers to federal housing assistance for those with criminal records, they said.
The Fair Chance at Housing Act of 2019 would:
•Ban blanket “1-strike” policies, which allow tenants to be evicted for a single incident of criminal activity, no matter how minor, in favor of a holistic review;
•Ban “no-fault” policies, which allow an entire family to be evicted for criminal activity by a guest of a household member even without the knowledge of anyone in the household;
•Raise the standards of evidence to be used by public housing authorities (PHAs) and owners and require a holistic consideration of all mitigating circumstances when making screening or eviction determinations based on criminal activity;
•Ensure that tenants who are evicted for criminal activity and applicants who are denied admission for criminal activity are given adequate written notice of the reasons for the decision, and the opportunity to present mitigating evidence or appeal a decision;
•Prohibit the use of suspicion-less drug and alcohol testing by owners and PHAs;
•Provide PHAs with additional administrative funding for helping to house ex-offenders through the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program; and
•Authorize $10 million in bonus funding for homeless service providers through the Continuum of Care program to serve ex-offenders.
By preserving the ability of PHAs and owners to protect the health and safety of their properties, while simultaneously rolling back unjustified policies, this bill would reduce recidivism by helping ex-offenders find stable housing upon exiting a jail or prison.
It would also help prevent homelessness by ensuring that individuals and households currently receiving federal housing assistance are not unfairly evicted.
Harris’ office said the bill has already received the support of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Legal Action Center, National Alliance to End Homelessness, National LGBTQ Task Force, and others.
“I am proud to join Senator Harris in introducing the Fair Chance at Housing Act … this legislation is one of many steps that need to be taken to repair our broken criminal justice system,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
“The denial of basic necessities to formerly incarcerated people does not make our communities safer. Denying housing to those that have been formerly incarcerated increases recidivism. Today we are taking a step to make our communities safer,” she said.
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