Do criminal record "look back" periods in subsidized housing keep people safe or keep people out?

Do criminal record "look back" periods in subsidized housing keep people safe or keep people out?

What were you doing 200 years ago? Did you have a rap sheet 99 years ago? How about 40?

For many of us, those are silly questions. Even at 50, if you look back 40 years, your life as a 10 year-old was probably filled with sleepovers and bike rides, not criminal activity?

But it's not a silly question if you're applying for subsidized housing. Some buildings, like Township Village in East Alton, Illinois, will look at the last 200 years of your criminal record to determine whether or not you can live there. Or Lakeside and Grant Manor in Chicago, which will peruse just 99 years of your criminal history.

These criminal records have a good goal - keeping people safe. After all, we wouldn't want to be offering people housing where their neighbors are a public threat. But at what point do these "look back periods" cross the line between keeping people safe and keeping people out? That's what the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law sought to find out in their report, "When Discretion Means Denial."(pdf)

The Shriver Center says there are a few big problems with the way housing authorities figure criminal history into the equation when deciding who should be given a place to live.

One is the "look back period". While federal laws only ask that housing authorities look at a "reasonable" time period, what counts as reasonable is obviously quite varied. Some have no limit on how far they look back, which Shriver says discourages people with any criminal history from applying in the first place. And when people do apply and are denied, they don't know if they can challenge that decision. Some housing authorities ban anyone who has a specific criminal activity in their past, no matter how long ago it occurred.

In addition, some Illinois housing authorities use an arrest in someone's past to keep them from getting housing, even if that person was never convicted. The Chicago Reporter has tackled a similar subject in talking about one-strike evictions - our last issue's investigation, One and Done, covered the Chicago Housing Authority kicking people out over arrests rather than convictions or even formal criminal charges. Shriver says the same thing is happening to keep people from even being accepted to subsidized housing in the first place.

Then there's the problem of vague categories of criminal activity. The Peoria Housing Authority says it will deny admission to those who have committed crimes of "moral turpitude." What does that even mean? Well, one of their examples is shoplifting. Shriver says standards like this give a housing authority "unfettered discretion to deny applicants and is consequently vulnerable to abuse." Other guidelines list prohibited crimes as anything that will negatively affect residents or the reputation of the development.

The problem of criminal activity in public and subsidized housing is one we hear a lot about. Crime around public housing developments and crimes committed by voucher holders in neighborhoods are two of the main complaints people have about public housing. But there's also the need to balance those ideas so that people are still innocent until proven guilty and allowed to move on with their lives after they've paid their debt to society.

How do we balance those two ideas? You tell us. Should the rules be more or less strict when it comes to admission? And then what happens after a person moves in? We all want to live in neighborhoods free from crime. How do we do that and still make sure everyone has a place to live?

Photo credit: Alan Cleaver


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  • Yes we should keep people out to protect the neighborhood. This policy makes the neighborhood more attractive and takes the stigma out of public housing which is always associated with crime. People have to consider the the area where they are putting these people. There is a certain standard and culture that is different especially if its a higher class community. Its the least the housing authorities can do, is to make sure they aren't adding more burden to the community. Living in public housing is a privalege not a right. If people complain maybe they should pay for their own housing or refrain from criminal activity.

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