A Housing Authority of New Orleans policy that would ease the way for less serious offenders to obtain public housing sparked passionate, boisterous debate Monday night, with many activists lauding the measure as a first step toward reuniting ex-offenders with their families but urging HANO to go even further to accomplish that goal.
Other speakers used the opportunity to generally decry the state of affairs for ex-offenders and impoverished residents in New Orleans.
The public hearing came ahead of a final decision by the authority’s board on the policy, which is expected next week.
The proposed rules, unveiled in February, represent the full realization of a plan HANO vaguely detailed almost three years ago. The agency pledged at that time to end barriers keeping many ex-offenders out of public housing, citing data that show that connecting ex-convicts with affordable housing gives them more of an incentive to stay out of trouble. Ex-offenders also were kept away from their relatives living in public housing under the old rules, advocates then said.
However, the authority did not move to outline how its policy change would play out in practice until this year, after a new, locally controlled administration reviewed its federally managed predecessor’s take on the plan.
The resulting guidelines state that HANO will weigh applicants’ convictions against a set of screening criteria for public and Section 8 housing. 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.
For those whose convictions warrant greater scrutiny, the panel will consider their criminal histories, records of drug or alcohol abuse treatment, community ties and employment histories, among other factors, before granting or denying admission. Those under review may appear before the panel or have an attorney plead their case. They also will have the right to appeal.
Convictions warranting the panel’s review will include armed robberies, homicides, kidnappings and others.
HANO also will ask third-party public housing managers who run mixed-income developments such as Columbia Parc to use the HANO-defined criteria instead of the separate screening procedures they use now. Some of those agencies may not be contractually obligated to comply with the rules; however, HANO will encourage them to do so.
The decision to merely encourage, rather than mandate, such adherence sparked repeated criticism Monday from multiple advocates and residents, who filled every seat in a meeting room at HANO’s Touro Street headquarters.
“The policy sets up different systems for HANO-managed and third-party sites,” said Colette Tippy, of Stand With Dignity, which along with the advocacy group Voice Of The Ex-offender staged a protest outside the building ahead of the hearing.
“There is no language that makes (third parties’ adherence) mandatory,” said Cashauna Hill, of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.
Tippy also criticized HANO for not promising to automatically grant an applicant housing when third-party managers — who manage the bulk of HANO’s properties — improperly deny aid to that applicant; HANO instead plans to ask managers to reconsider those applicants.
Finally, the two advocacy groups urged the agency to continue to flag applicants who have been convicted on illegal drug possession or alcohol-related charges at least twice in the three months before they submit their applications, a measure HANO included three years ago at advocates’ urging. Instead of keeping that language, HANO wants to make its policy on that point more sweeping and flag all those who have “engaged in the behavior” within a year of their applications.
HANO plans to examine arrests, convictions and evictions for drug or alcohol abuse when determining who has “engaged in the behavior,” though it will not reject applicants who are enrolled in drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs, the new rules state.
Marlene Kennedy, who said she recently was released after a five-year stint in prison, was among those simply frustrated with things in general.
“I don’t know where I’m going to sleep tonight. I go from family house to family house,” she said. “If you tell me where to go, I’ll walk there,” she said, to applause.
HANO’s board is expected to consider the rules March 29.
Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.