We find throughout history, policies that were meant for good can sometimes produce unexpected negative consequences. I believe two unrelated policies have created a vital roadblock to prosperity for families from lower-income communities. These policies play an important role in whether an increasing number of ex-offenders who are women will be able to secure adequate housing for themselves and their families.
The 1994 crime bill, sponsored by current President Biden, was created to combat violent crimes. Unfortunately, the bill has helped the U.S. reach historic levels of mass incarceration, particularly for individuals from lower-income minority communities. Between 1980 and 2006, the incarceration rate more than quadrupled. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, over 81,000 women are released from prison each year.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released the Keating Memorandum to clarify HUD’s position on Fair Housing Act violations relating to occupancy restrictions. A March 2016 Fair Housing White Paper suggests the occupancy rule in the Keating Memo has helped rectify a flawed system that allowed landlords to discriminate against certain occupants. It states explicitly: “factors relevant to this analysis include the size of the bedroom and overall unit, the age of any children occupants, the configuration of the unit, state and local laws, and other physical limitations of the building.”
The Keating Memo has helped eliminate unfair housing practices in the rental market based on familial status. Still, it fails to provide options to families that would benefit from less restrictive limitations. Current occupancy limitations may cause a family to choose between having additional kids or relocating to areas with lower rent.
According to the “Opportunity Agenda for Renters,” affordable housing for low- and moderate-income households is mostly located in high-poverty, low-opportunity neighborhoods. These neighborhoods have high poverty, unemployment, high school dropout rates, and less access to high-wage jobs, grocery stores, and banks.
The ramifications for women ex-offenders are even greater. Research shows that formerly incarcerated people are nearly ten times more likely to be homeless and that the rate of homelessness for women ex-offenders is higher than men. In addition, being homeless, unstably housed, or living in a high crime neighborhood heightens an individual’s risk of reoffending.’
I applaud New Jersey for honoring the state’s motto “liberty and prosperity” by signing into law the” Fair Chance in Housing Act,” which addresses discrimination in housing practices against ex-offenders. This is a step in the right direction, but more policies like this are required to ensure that all Americans have access to adequate housing regardless of criminal history.