A policy that makes it easier for ex-convicts to obtain affordable housing in New Orleans is in effect at only some of the privately managed housing developments for which it was intended, drawing criticism from advocates who say officials should do more to force compliance.
“If we don’t have any power over the corporate developers, then we can’t impact affordable housing in our city,” said Bruce Reilly of Voice of the Experienced, an advocacy group for ex-offenders.
But the four large holdout complexes, run by private entities that aren’t contractually bound to the Housing Authority of New Orleans-approved plan, largely appear to have practices that accomplish the same goal — a scenario HANO officials count as a win.
“The policies that they practice generally mirror the intent of our criminal background policy,” HANO Executive Director Gregg Fortner said, though he added that HANO's review of the firms' policies isn't complete.
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The HANO plan is not officially in place at the Estates on Desire Parkway, formerly the Desire public housing project, or at Columbia Parc, formerly the St. Bernard housing complex.
It also is not being implemented at Marrero Commons, formerly the B.W. Cooper project, or at Harmony Oaks, formerly the C.J. Peete housing development.
But the private firms that manage four other large HANO-affiliated developments have signed on to the policy, officials said at a recent HANO committee meeting.
The report on compliance came more than a year after HANO’s board approved the controversial policy, which was pitched as a first step to addressing the problem of ex-cons with limited rap sheets being barred from public housing and isolated from their families.
Under the policy, HANO and its third-party management partners are to individually review the criminal records of all applicants for public and Section 8 subsidized housing.
Applicants’ criminal convictions would be weighed against a set of screening criteria. Depending on the nature and date of the offenses, officials would either admit the applicants or send their cases to a three-member panel for closer review.
Crimes warranting a closer look include convictions for armed robbery, homicide, kidnapping and several others. Those with less serious or long-ago offenses would presumably be admitted to public housing.
The policy, which was passed in March 2016 and took effect in August, has thus far sparked 17 reviews of applicants, records show. The review panel approved 15 of the applications, while the other two would-be tenants withdrew their names from consideration.
The records did not show the total number of applicants within that period.
HANO board members have long conceded that the plan left a loophole for the private companies that manage most of HANO’s housing stock. While it said those companies had to comply with the new rule unless they could prove they aren’t legally bound to do so, those firms' contracts with HANO, crafted long before the authority’s new local managers took charge in 2014, likely contain no such mandate.
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Still, some of the managers have signed on anyway. They include HRI Properties, which runs the River Gardens Apartments and Bienville Basin, formerly the St. Thomas and Iberville housing developments, respectively; the partnership of Providence Community Housing, Enterprise Community Partners and L&M Development, which owns Faubourg Lafitte, formerly the Lafitte development; and the Guste Homes Resident Management Corp., which runs the Guste Apartment homes.
But Reilly on Saturday accused HANO of playing nice with the others when it could get tough. There’s nothing stopping HANO from refusing to enter into new deals with firms that resist the new policy, he said, or from forcing compliance another way.
HANO board Vice President Andreanecia Morris seemed sympathetic to that view at Wednesday’s committee meeting, questioning why HANO was being so forgiving if the hesitant firms, at first glance, appear to have admissions policies that resemble HANO’s anyway.
Marrero Commons and Harmony Oaks, run by the St. Louis-based McCormack Baron Salazar, already do individual reviews of applicants and the risks they pose, said Maggie Merrill, HANO’s director of asset management.
Columbia Parc, run by Columbia Residential of Georgia, also has a review panel, though that group may screen applicants using a different set of criteria than does HANO.
Meanwhile, the Estates “are the ones that say, ‘We can’t comply with your policy’ ... (but) they walk me through their policy, and I say, ‘That’s pretty much exactly what our policy is,’ ” Merrill said. That development is run by the Michaels Organization of New Jersey and its subsidiaries.
Merrill and other staffers plan to closely scrutinize those companies’ admission criteria in the coming weeks.
Representatives from the noncompliant firms did not return calls for comment Friday about their policies or their resistance to HANO's initiative. However, the Estates policy, as seen on Michaels' website, does appear strikingly similar to the latest HANO policy.
Fortner said he believed the companies were concerned about setting a bad precedent by agreeing to termex-s that were not discussed in their original negotiations. They also may not want to associate themselves with “the publicity” surrounding HANO's official criminal background check policy, he said.
“The way it’s been advertised, it’s supposedly this foreign kind of thing, and it’s really not,” he said.