Nearly three years after announcing its intention to drop barriers keeping residents with criminal records out of public housing, the Housing Authority of New Orleans has unveiled specific rules that will ease the way for less serious offenders.
New policy language adopted in 2013 prohibited officials from excluding applicants based solely on criminal background checks, except when federal law demands it.
The draft guidelines the agency announced last month, however, for the first time outline just how HANO and its partners will vet applicants with checkered pasts. Agency officials hope to present the rules to the HANO board of commissioners for consideration this month.
The move to finally implement the 2013 policy follows advocacy groups’ calls to end what they considered to be stalling. Those groups say it’s necessary to loosen HANO’s tenant restrictions, given the discrimination that ex-convicts face in the broader housing market and because the rules can keep offenders with relatives in public housing away from their families.
The delay was due, at least partly, to HANO’s shift from federal to local control in 2014. HANO’s new management said it wanted to be sure that the plan drawn up by David Gilmore, who had headed the agency under federal receivership, was in accord with best practices.
New Executive Director Gregg Fortner also expressed reservations about going too far in loosening the screening process.
Under the recently announced proposal, officials would weigh public housing and Section 8 applicants’ convictions against a set of screening criteria. Depending on the nature and date of their conviction, the applicant either would be admitted to public housing or designated for further review.
Even third-party public housing managers — such as those who run mixed-income developments like Columbia Parc — would use the HANO-defined criteria instead of the separate screening procedures they use now. Advocacy groups have long denounced those managers for not publicizing just what criteria they use to disqualify housing candidates.
A panel will scrutinize applicants who have more egregious or recent convictions. It will consider those applicants’ criminal history, record of drug or alcohol abuse treatment, community ties and employment history, among other factors, before granting or denying admission.
Those under review may appear before the panel or have an attorney plead their case, the policy states. They also have the right to appeal.
HANO will generally flag applicants with convictions, not merely arrests, unless charges in those arrests are pending. That move is in line with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines released last year. Convictions warranting the panel’s review include armed robberies, intentional homicides, kidnappings and others.
Before implementing the policy, a focus group — composed of housing and ex-offender advocates, Section 8 landlords, public housing resident leaders and others — held several workshops to advise HANO.
Monika Gerhart-Hambrick, of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, which criticized HANO for its tardy policy implementation in September, had high praise for the draft guidelines.
“The proposed policy is consistent with broader citywide public safety goals to reduce citywide recidivism and crime,” she said.
Requiring that third-party public housing managers use the same screening measure, instead of individual ones, will end inconsistency and promote transparency, Gerhart-Hambrick added.
HANO’s next board meeting is March 29.
Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.