City seeks to change housing policy

HUD needs to OK rule allowing ex-convicts to live in public units

November 17, 2003|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

People with criminal records would no longer be routinely barred for life from Baltimore's public housing under a new policy approved by the local housing authority.

Under the plan, which must be approved by federal housing authorities, people convicted of felonies would be eligible for public housing after a three-year waiting period. Those convicted of misdemeanors would be eligible after 18 months.

Even after those waiting periods are up, the authority would have the right to deny housing to anyone considered a threat to other tenants.

The authority is seeking permission from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to apply the policy to its 14,000 public housing units. HUD is expected to rule on the matter in about two months.

The authority is already using the policy, with HUD's blessing, for its Section 8 program, which provides housing vouchers to 11,000 families.

Even if HUD approves the request, certain crimes will disqualify people from public housing: sex offenses and manufacturing methamphetamine on public housing property.

The proposed changes were hailed by advocates for former convicts, who they say have a better chance of leading productive lives if they have stable housing.

About 10,000 people are released from Maryland state prisons each year and about 4,500 of them settle in the city, according to Christy Visher, an Urban Institute investigator who is conducting a study on ex-convicts called "Returning Home."

"A lot of people are re-entering our communities after periods of incarceration, and it's a problem that can no longer be ignored. They wind up homeless," said Corinne Carey, a lawyer and a researcher with Human Rights Watch, an organization based in New York that is conducting a national study of ex-offenders and their ability to receive public housing assistance.

"When they end up in places that are less stable, their lives are less stable," she said. "A real public safety idea is providing people with safe and affordable housing so they can get their lives together."

The new policy would replace vague guidelines that sometimes resulted in denying housing to people who had been charged with crimes but not convicted, said Carolyn Johnson, an attorney with the Homeless Persons Representation Project, a local advocacy group that helped the authority draft the new rules.

"Some people got through and some people didn't," she said. "It's not clear how those decisions were made."

Housing officials agree that the previous policy was unclear. Under the old rules, housing could be denied to someone with "involvement" in violent crimes, for example. It was not clear if that meant someone had to be convicted or just accused of such crimes, said David Tillman, a spokesman for the authority.

But even under the new policy, someone could be denied housing for a string of arrests, even if they do not result in convictions, since that could indicate a pattern of undesirable behavior, Tillman said.

"Prior to this administration, the housing authority had no reasonably articulated policy on the denial of assistance to families with criminal backgrounds," said Commissioner Paul T. Graziano, the city housing chief. "In accordance with HUD changes, we have been working with advocacy groups over the past year to develop a policy that promotes a fair review of all housing applicants that protects our most valuable asset -- our residents."

Public housing tenants contacted about the proposed changes said they welcomed them so long as their prospective neighbors do not cause trouble.

"That's only fair because everybody's entitled to a home," said Anna Warren, vice chairwoman of the authority's resident advisory board and a resident of Claremont Homes in Northeast Baltimore.

"But we want to make sure we keep the drug people out of public housing as best as we can," she said. "... We don't want the same problems that we were having with drug dealers all in public housing."

Jean Booker-Bradley, a board member and resident of Somerset Homes in East Baltimore, agreed.

"I'm very much for it because I believe everybody deserves a chance, even murderers," she said.

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