Bleary-eyed but determined, activists packed a Housing Authority of New Orleans board meeting room Tuesday evening, urging the authority to do more to ensure that ex-offenders can obtain affordable housing in the city.
The activists, who had just wrapped up a 24-hour protest outside the authority’s Touro Street offices, didn’t get all that they asked for.
But most in the room seemed to agree that the new policy the authority’s board approved Tuesday is at least a first step in addressing the problem of ex-cons with limited rap sheets who in the past often have been barred from public housing and isolated from their families.
“This is a revolutionary policy,” said Bruce Reilly, of Voice Of The Ex-offender, an advocacy group. “And we need revolutionary solutions.”
Months of workshops, a boisterous public hearing and numerous written comments all led to HANO’s latest policy on criminal background screening, which provides for individualized reviews for applicants with criminal records.
It is the full realization of a plan that HANO announced in principle almost three years ago but did not move to implement until this year, after the agency’s new, locally controlled administration reviewed its federally managed predecessor’s advocacy of the plan.
Under the new policy, HANO will weigh the convictions of applicants for both public and Section 8 housing against a set of screening criteria. Depending on the nature and date of those convictions, officials will either admit the applicants or send their cases to a three-member panel for closer review.
Crimes that warrant the panel’s review include convictions for armed robbery, homicide, kidnapping and several others.
The policy will become effective upon the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s approval, a process that generally takes two to three months, officials said.
Much-criticized language that encouraged but did not mandate the private entities that manage a majority of HANO’s housing stock to adhere to the same new screening rules was removed ahead of Tuesday’s vote, in a victory for advocates who pushed for that change. The policy approved Tuesday requires those third-party entities to comply with the new policy, unless they can legally prove they are not obligated to do so.
Even that is not a foolproof assurance of compliance, as some managers’ contracts with HANO — crafted long before the authority’s new local managers took charge — may not require them to comply with such a mandate. Still, the policy needed to be passed, board President Dwayne Bernal said, so that it may be either supported or contested.
“The longer we go back and forth, they will say, as they have, that ‘We can’t let you know where we stand until you approve a policy,’ ” he said of the private managers, who have largely kept their opinions about the new rules to themselves.
A representative from at least one of those companies, HRI Properties, was present Tuesday. While HRI has not seen HANO’s new policy, “I’m sure we will meet and discuss it and attempt to work on the policy they have adopted,” said former New Orleans Mayor Sidney Barthelemy, HRI’s vice president of governmental relations.
HRI manages the Bienville Basin and River Gardens apartments.
Meanwhile, the activist groups have other gripes that weren’t immediately addressed Tuesday.
They criticized HANO for changing its policy that in the past barred applicants who have been convicted on illegal drug possession or alcohol-related charges at least twice in the preceding three months. Instead, the agency now can bar applicants who have “engaged in the behavior” within a year before their applications. Advocates said that more sweeping language is too broad.
Activists also wanted applicants who have been arrested and are facing pending charges to be able to live with relatives in public housing while their cases play out, rather than having their applications kept on hold until their cases are adjudicated.
The activists further wanted HANO to have more say over who is denied housing at the privately managed properties.
Still, Bernal said, “My stance is that all of the parties involved have spent a tremendous amount of time reviewing this, although we may not have what everyone figures is the 100 percent solution.”
Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.