Elaisha Stokes
Elaisha Stokes

For ex-cons, finding housing may become less difficult in the Big Easy

New Orleans has passed a radical policy that, if implemented, would for the first time admit ex-felons to public housing

NEW ORLEANS — Charleis Williams’ problems began last May. After she had lived in a modest four-bedroom home in the Mid-City neighborhood of New Orleans for six years, her landlord decided he wanted out of the business. He was old and had recently suffered a heart attack. Taking care of property was no longer his priority, so he decided to sell the house – empty. He gave Williams 30 days to pack up her seven children and all their belongings and find a new place to live.

For Williams, the move should have been simple. She had a Section 8 voucher through the New Orleans Public Housing Authority that would subsidize $1,100 of her rent. All she needed to do was find a new landlord to accept it.

Trouble was, no one would accept her voucher.

“I have put in an application on at least 12 places in the last two months,” said Williams. “But I still don’t have a place to live.”

Several years ago Williams was charged with theft when a friend she was out shopping with stole a couple of CDs from the local Walmart. She pleaded guilty and was released on probation. In April, she was charged again after a probation officer who had come to see her son searched her house and found her marijuana stash. The case is currently making its way through the courts. Her former landlord was aware of both charges, but didn’t seem to mind so long as Williams paid her rent on time and kept the house in good repair, which she did. But other landlords appeared to be a lot pickier.

“If I had to guess, once my background comes up, they don’t want to approve my application,” said Williams. “They just never get back in touch with me. They just go quiet.”

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, known as HUD, provides public-housing assistance to about 3.4 million households annually, either in the form of housing projects, where tenants pay rent substantially below market rate, or rent-subsidy vouchers, to be used in private, market-rate housing, better known as Section 8 vouchers. Historically, people with criminal histories have been banned from receiving these benefits. Under federal law, local public-housing authorities are empowered to create their own guidelines for admission, provided they adhere to the Fair Housing Act of 1968. For most local housing authorities, these guidelines banned formerly incarcerated people from public housing. In some instances, just a record of arrest, even without charges, was enough to have an application for housing denied.

What we know is that employment and housing are critical factors in remaining crime free. Public housing is critical.

Jon Wool

Vera Institute of Justice

Today, there is a national movement to encourage local authorities to rethink these rules. While pilot programs are underway across the country, New Orleans is in the vanguard, with a radical policy stating that a criminal record will no longer trigger an automatic rejection for public housing.

The change is meant to prevent recidivism and protect families, many of which secretly shelter their formerly incarcerated relatives, putting the entire family at risk of eviction. A fix is urgently needed; New Orleans is currently the incarceration capital of the world, with a per capita rate of 1,535 per 100,000. That’s about three times the national average and twice the average for the rest of Louisiana. Among black men, the rate is much higher, with roughly 1 in 14 currently behind bars. According to some estimates, there are 20,000 people living in New Orleans who have been to prison at some point in their lives and far more with a criminal record.

“The world of people with criminal convictions is much larger than those who are incarcerated,” explained Jon Wool, director of the New Orleans office of the Vera Institute of Justice. “There are many people who were never sentenced to prison or maybe got out 20 years ago and are unable to get into public housing now.”

The nonprofit acted as a consultant with the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) in its development of the new housing policy. “What we know is that employment and housing are critical factors in remaining crime free,” said Wool. “Public housing is critical.”

Public housing project B.W. Cooper with the new HANO-supported, mixed-income developments in the background.
Elaisha Stokes

But the policy, which was passed in a vote by the HANO board last spring, has yet to be implemented. And there’s no clear indication of when it will be. After 12 years in federal receivership for poor financial management, HANO has finally been placed back under local control. While the policy on housing for people with a criminal history initially had a lot of momentum behind it, a sweeping change in leadership in July has put implementation on hold, perhaps permanently.

“We are basically going to go back to square one with this new board,” said Bruce Reilly, a policy consultant and activist who works with the Voice of the Ex-Offender, a New Orleans-based grassroots organization that participated in community consultations on the HANO policy development.

Without an implemented policy to support her housing hunt, Williams continued to search for a new home while bunking at her sister’s house with four of her children. The other three stay with another relative across town. With summer coming to an end, she’s started to worry about how everyone will get to school.

“I’m a single parent,” explained Williams. “I’m trying to keep my kids off the street every day. How am I supposed to do this if we are homeless?”

Fair housing, unfair access?

New Orleans is a tourist town, best known for the French Quarter, where visitors sip overpriced frozen daiquiris while wandering historic cobblestone streets. The food is spicy, and the bars never seem to close. But the French Quarter was protected from the worst of Hurricane Katrina, the storm that devastated the city almost 10 years ago, and few visitors are privy to the current of changes now sweeping the city.

This is not the first time New Orleans has been a national leader in radical public housing policy. The post-Katrina rebuilding of the city allowed for the demolition of all five of the city’s major housing projects – part of a national move by HUD to integrate economically marginalized people into mixed-income communities, with the goal of creating safer cities.

But the redevelopment of New Orleans has resulted in a dramatic drop in the number of public housing units available. Today, HANO has just 1,898 public housing units, down from about 5,146 units before the storm. At the same time, the number of families that use public-housing vouchers has increased dramatically from 9,000 prior to Katrina to 17,700 families today. The increase in voucher use started in 1974, after President Richard Nixon declared a moratorium on public housing and instituted the Section 8 program, in part to engage the private sector.

But housing vouchers can’t keep pace with the market rent, which, in post-Katrina New Orleans, has skyrocketed. In 2011, 54 percent of renters in the city were paying more than 35 percent of their pre-tax income on rent and utilities, up from 43 percent in 2004, according to the Data Center, a New Orleans-based research organization. “Prior to Katrina,” said Kate Scott, the assistant director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, “it was easy to find a one-bedroom apartment in many neighborhoods for $400 to $500 per month. Now it's virtually impossible to find a one-bedroom in most neighborhoods for under $800 [at least]."

With long wait lists to access public housing, it’s unclear how much of an impact the new policy will have. According to HANO, 4,145 households are currently waiting for public housing. The number on the waiting list for Section 8 vouchers, which has been closed since 2009 due to over-subscription and lack of funding, has jumped from 14,000 pre-Katrina to more than 20,000 today. With an expected annual turnover of 170 and 1,700 respectively, the wait for affordable subsidized housing is now close to a decade. In addition, a criminal background check is only done when a family gets within 10 spots of the top. Often, it is only after years of waiting that they find out they are not eligible.

With a shortage of housing [the private landlords] can cherry-pick. And formerly incarcerated people are not a protected class.

Bruce Reilly

Voice of the Ex-Offender

The new mixed-income housing development at Marrero Commons, which is the redevelopment of B.W. Cooper.
Elaisha Stokes

“What you see overall is a huge reduction in affordable units,” explained Scott. “In terms of the Fair Housing Act, the legality is up in the air. But whether or not it’s legal, it’s problematic.”

According to the Fair Housing Act of 1968, it is illegal to deny housing to protected classes. The classes are based on race, ethnicity, religion, familial status, disability and sometimes gender and sexual orientation. But formerly incarcerated people are not a protected class, and so they are still discriminated against in housing.

Bruce Reilly, of Voice of the Ex-Offender, argues that these policies remain discriminatory, in part because arrest and incarceration rates are particularly high for African-American and Hispanic men, sometimes at rates two or three times their proportion in the general population. According to the NAACP, one in three African-American men will serve time in prison during his lifetime. “Admission and eviction policies, regarding public housing and criminal histories,” Reilly wrote in a recent report, “generally discriminate against and exclude not only the arrested individual, but their entire family.”

Part of the issue is that the new mixed-income housing developments are run by private landlords who have the authority to decide who gets admitted to the public-housing units they develop. Applications go to the developer, who decides who gets to rent the unit. There are few other instances where access to a federal public benefit is determined by a for-profit company rather than by the government.

“With a shortage of housing they can cherry-pick,” said Reilly. “And formerly incarcerated people are not a protected class.”

Private owners resist policy

Lying in the shadow of the now infamous Superdome in the Central Business District, B.W. Cooper was once one of the largest public housing developments in the city, with 1,546 units. Generations of New Orleanians called them home. Now only a few families remain, hidden deep within the complex, between boarded up windows and empty green lawns. Across the street, the new mixed-income development of Marrero Commons stands in stark contrast, with picturesque two-story town houses complete with picket fence balconies.

“They separated family. They separated friends,” lamented Williana Tadlock, one of the few people left from the old days. On a July Saturday, Tadlock watched neighbors pack up trucks and move their belongings elsewhere. This weekend, she will have to move too, and she’ll take her four grandchildren with her. After years of relatively petty criminal incidents, her daughter lost her public-housing voucher in 2012. Fearing her grandkids might become homeless, Tadlock has adopted them to ensure they have a place to live.

Tadlock waited two years to find out where HANO was going to shift her. In the interim, her husband passed away, and the custody of her grandchildren came through. She’s not moving far, though, just across the street to Marrero Commons, built to replace B.W. Cooper Housing Projects with the support of HANO. What’s left of the old B.W. Cooper buildings will be demolished later this year. Tadlock is one of the lucky ones – there are only 90 public-housing units in the new development.

Williana Tadlock is pictured with her grandchildren, who she has adopted to make sure they can all live in public housing.
Elaisha Stokes

It is the developers of these new, mixed-income communities who have provided some of the most vocal opposition to the changing policy. HRI Properties, a New Orleans-based real-estate firm, has been central in much of the post-Katrina redevelopment in the city. HRI is redeveloping the historic Iberville housing projects in the French Quarter where wrecking balls have taken down most of the 75 original three-story buildings. It was one of the few projects in the city untouched by Hurricane Katrina, but after years of negotiations, HANO has finally commenced redevelopment of the property into a mixed-income community. According to HRI’s website, the company’s mission is “revitalizing cities by creating diverse, vibrant and sustainable communities.”

The company also manages River Gardens Apartments, a mixed-income housing complex built with government grants that replaced the public housing at St. Thomas Projects. River Gardens is now home to 606 units on 40 acres of land. Forty percent are public-housing units and 60 percent are market rate. When the community was known as St. Thomas, it had 1,500 units, 100 percent of which were public housing.

Pres Kabacoff, the chief executive officer of HRI Properties, has been adamant about the need to reform the New Orleans criminal justice system, and has even written an impassioned letter to the editor of The Times-Picayune.

We don’t think we have to adhere to HANO’s policy. You can’t impose rules after you’ve done a deal.

Pres Kabacoff

HRI Properties

Yet Kabacoff doesn’t mince words when it comes to the new HANO criminal-background screening policy. “We have a dual mission on our side,” he explained over the phone. “To make mixed housing work, you have to attract market rate and you have to keep them there. You don’t want market rate to leave because they think the place is dangerous.”

HRI has already come under fire for its management of public housing units in the River Gardens development, where residents claim they are subject to unlawful invasion of their apartments by private security officers working for the company and are served with eviction notices for minor offenses such as missing cabinet knobs or broken window blinds. Critics suggest this dynamic has to do with the fundamental flaw in private managers running public-housing units.

When asked if HRI would adopt the new HANO policy allowing formerly incarcerated people back into public housing, Kabacoff said he didn’t think so. “We don’t think we have to adhere to HANO’s policy. You can’t impose rules after you’ve done a deal.”

According to some stakeholders, it could come to litigation.

“We are trying with honey,” said Reilly about implementing the policy. “But if we need to, we will use vinegar.”

Management of the proposed housing units is not the only flaw in the pending HANO policy. Some fair housing advocates say its failure to address eviction proceedings means that many families won’t be reunited for long, particularly because the authority continues to adhere to the “one-strike rule” on evictions.

There was nothing in my history for any problems. We had a clean record. When this happened, I lost my voucher. Me and my daughter were homeless. I lost my job.

Kim Parker

lost her Section 8 voucher

Kim Parker with her daughter (left) holds Desmond’s baby. She moved back to New Orleans to care for the baby after being evicted for drug possession. They all live in a market-rate apartment in east New Orleans.
Elaisha Stokes

Kim Parker, a single mother with three children, knows this story too well. For years she lived peacefully in a Section 8-subsidized unit in east New Orleans. Then last year, Parker says, a week before Christmas, police officers broke down her door with a warrant that did not include a name, and found her 21-year-old son, Desmond Parker, smoking marijuana. They arrested him after allegedly intimidating her son into signing an affidavit that the drugs were his. Parker had to post a bail bond of $1,800.

“I was mad,” Parker said. “My child was not a criminal. He had never been to jail ever.”

But Desmond had dreadlocks and drove a beat-up Lexus from 1998. He fit the profile, he said, and that made him a target. “They thought I was doing something wrong,” he said, but “my name wasn’t even on the warrant.”

Desmond eventually completed a court-ordered sobriety program. He was never charged with anything, and his criminal record remained clean. But because his name was on the lease, his arrest triggered a HANO termination hearing, and Parker lost her Section 8 voucher. Unable to afford the rent without government assistance, she was forced to take her daughter to Ft. Worth, Texas, to live with Parker’s sister.

“There was nothing in my history for any problems,” said Parker. “We had a clean record. When this happened, I lost my voucher. Me and my daughter were homeless. I lost my job.”

Parker’s lawyers point out that a HANO hearing is different from a legal hearing. Hearsay is allowed, so the burden of proof shifts onto the defendant.

Her lawyers remain hopeful that Parker’s voucher will be reinstated upon appeal. In the meantime, she has returned to New Orleans, where Desmond works a minimum-wage night shift at a Sheraton Hotel. He now pays the rent for a market-rate two-bedroom that the family of five lives in. 

My grandchildren should be living with their mother. Maybe, if this policy does go through, things can get right.

Williana Tadlock

adopted her grandchildren so they'd have a home

Still, those who work in the field of low-income housing in New Orleans are adamant that there are reasons to celebrate the new policy, should it ever be implemented. New Orleans remains the most punitive city in the world in terms of jailing people. But with the right alignment of voices and interests, it is poised to become a national leader in rethinking criminal justice and its collateral consequences.

“New Orleans is not often first in things that are good,” said Wool. “For New Orleans to do this, it’s a remarkable thing.”

For the families who live in public housing, the change could mean peace of mind when welcoming loved ones home.

“My grandchildren should be living with their mother,” who is still on probation, said Tadlock. After the chaos of navigating her own public housing situation, Tadlock started working as a community organizer. She said her experience with HANO helped her realize that none of these changes will matter unless the affected community organizes to help implement them. People, she said, simply don't know their rights. For now, her daughter, who remains an active presence in her children’s lives, is prohibited from stepping onto public-housing grounds. “Maybe, if this policy does go through, things can get right.”

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