Evicting the New Jim Crow

Say a high school student does something extremely dumb. She calls in a false bomb threat. Naturally, threatening a public building is quite illegal. She is arrested on a felony charge. But she is contrite and cooperative. She completes a diversionary juvenile justice program. Case dismissed.

Three and a half years later she applies for public housing. A crim check turns up the charge, and she is denied. What are her alternatives? If she could even qualify for a Housing Choice (Section 8) voucher, she would be out of luck. The local waiting list has been closed for years. She might sleep on a friend’s couch for awhile. She might end up homeless.

Under Chapel Hill’s public housing policies, inequities like this are too common. But change is on its way. Advocates from the local defense bar, the North Carolina Justice Center, the town’s Justice in Action committee, the Organizing Against Racism Alliance, the UNC Center for Civil Rights, the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, and others have converged on various proposals for change. Mayor Kleinschmidt and I have wholeheartedly embraced their goals. When Council meetings resume in September I trust that the full Council will join us in supporting a clear new policy direction.

Some context is in order. Chapel Hill’s policies stand today as the harshest for miles around. For example, conviction for a violent crime–or even a charge that is subsequently dismissed–excludes a person from applying for public housing for 10 years. This compares with 5 years in Asheville, 3-5 in Durham, 5 in Raleigh, 5 in Greensboro, and 7 in Charlotte. If the crime or charge involves drugs, the exclusion is for 15 years–again as compared with 5 or at most 7 years in these other cities.

And what’s even more alarming, the theoretical discretion that the Housing Department has–the ability to look at some situations individually and make a rational and humane decision (as, for example, in the case of a person who pulled a stupid stunt in high school and completed a rehabilitation program)–is rarely exercised.

Public defender James Williams and other advocates for change have been doing some research. According to their findings,

At least 130 low-income individuals have been denied access to public housing under this policy since 2010.

Many of the denials were based on criminal charges that had been dismissed; several others were based on long-ago misdemeanor convictions. Not captured in official records are individuals discouraged from even applying to public housing because of the exclusion policy, or those forced to choose between remaining in public housing and being reunited with family members with criminal records.

Eviction policies are just as strict. Tenants can be evicted on the basis of a member of the household’s criminal behavior regardless of whether the tenant had any knowledge of it. A grandmother can lose her lease because her grandson, whom she had kicked out of the house because of his drug habit, got caught this time and tried to return.

These harsh policies are thoroughly at odds with the values we claim of inclusion and support for the least among us. Where did they come from?

They’re a legacy of the War on Drugs. Under the Reagan administration, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 gave public housing agencies broad powers “to evict any tenant, household member, or guest engaged in any criminal activity on or near public housing premises,” writes Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, her important, withering critique of the American criminal justice system. President Clinton, not to be outdone, went further. Seeking “to bolster his ‘tough on crime’ credentials,” Clinton called on public housing agencies to exercise no discretion with respect to criminal activity.

Accordingly, Alexander tells us, the Department of Housing and Urban Development published guidelines encouraging public housing agencies to “take full advantage of their authority to use stringent screening and eviction procedures,” allowing them to develop their own criteria. This is what allowed Chapel Hill to go its own way, crafting policies more stringent even than those in neighboring communities.

The impact of these “colorblind” policies, Alexander’s research demonstrates, falls heaviest on black citizens, helping to perpetuate a contemporary underclass.

During Jim Crow, it was legal to deny housing on the basis of race, through restrictive covenants and other exclusionary practices. Today, discrimination against felons, criminal suspects, and their families is routine among public and private landlords alike. Rather than racially restrictive covenants, we have restrictive lease agreements, barring the new “undesirables.”

The ripple effects are many: from the break-up of families to the impact on our limited stock of affordable housing. With already a severe shortage of eligible Housing Choice apartments, it is increasingly harder to find apartments for very low-income people–such as those emerging from homelessness.

Now is the time for a new direction. The national policy direction has already changed. In 2011, then-HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan published a letter urging public housing directors precisely to exercise their discretion when making decisions regarding ex-offenders.

In striking the balance between allowing fair chances to ex-offenders who have paid their dues and ensuring the safety of all residents, bans for certain serious offenses remain nondiscretionary. But the broad message is clear. Secretary Donovan says it well, in a way that resonates with our own values.

[T]his is an Administration that believes in the importance of second chances–that people who have paid their debt to society deserve the opportunity to become productive citizens and caring parents, to set the past aside and embrace the future. Part of that support means helping ex-offenders gain access to one of the most fundamental building blocks of a stable life–a place to live.

It is time to show the new Jim Crow the door.


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