Under pressure to finally drop barriers that keep applicants with criminal records from getting into public housing, the Housing Authority of New Orleans has begun taking public input in a process that could ease the way for less serious offenders.
New policy language drawn up and adopted in 2013, when the authority was still under federal control, would prohibit officials from excluding applicants based solely on criminal background checks, except when federal law demands it.
But the policy has never been fully implemented, and advocacy groups including the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center have asked the authority to end the foot-dragging. They argue it’s necessary to loosen the restrictions, given the discrimination faced by ex-convicts in the broader housing market.
The delay is due at least in part to the fact that HANO shifted from federal to local control about a year ago. The agency’s new management is trying to ensure a plan drawn up by David Gilmore, who headed the agency under federal receivership, is in accord with best practices.
The agency’s new executive director, Gregg Fortner, has expressed reservations about going too far in loosening the screening process.
The original plan, which won praise from the Fair Action Housing Center and the activist group Stand with Dignity, calls for evaluating applicants with criminal records on a case-by-case basis. Those with less egregious offenses on their records would progress in the normal application process, while more serious offenders would be vetted by a housing panel and HANO’s chief executive.
Before moving ahead with the plan, HANO is holding a series of workshops and has created a criminal background focus group, composed of housing and ex-offender advocates, Section 8 landlords, resident leaders and other staffers. An initial meeting was held on Oct. 8; a second meeting will be held Nov. 5, spokeswoman Lesley Thomas said.
Another workshop, set for December, will discuss the focus group’s recommendations. HANO’s staff then will present those suggestions to a committee of the HANO board, followed by the full board, Thomas said.
The agency plans to implement whatever policy results early next year.
In a September report, the Fair Housing Action Center criticized HANO for stalling on implementing the 2013 plan.
“As of the writing of this report, HANO has failed to implement the 2013 policy and continues to apply the broader policy that disproportionately impacts African-Americans,” the group said. “Any policy solution that seeks to remediate systemic citywide patterns of discrimination must include the significant portion of the tenant population that is serviced by HANO.”
The report added that HANO “continues to apply a policy that denies housing to people not only because of convictions, but also because of arrests.”
Thomas, the HANO spokeswoman, said that is not actually the case. She said the agency since 2013 has screened only for past convictions, not for arrests.
And she added that over the past two years, there have been no applicants with criminal records who have triggered a review at HANO-owned or managed sites.
That does not include those sites managed by third parties that do business with HANO, which have their own criteria and management plans.
In any case, Fair Housing Action Center spokeswoman Monika Gerhart-Hambrick said in a recent interview that HANO’s scheduled meetings were “an important first step.”
“We’re optimistic that we will be able to come to a solution,” she said.
Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.