The Housing Authority of New Orleans is seeking to extend a policy that would make it easier for people with limited rap sheets to live in public housing.
The change would make the criminal background screening procedures HANO is proposing to use for its own units mandatory for the private entities that now manage a majority of the authority’s properties.
If the changed plans are approved by the HANO board, it would be a victory for activists who clamored for that modification last week, saying that an older proposal didn’t do enough to afford ex-offenders an opportunity to be reunited with their families.
The authority unveiled the new plans on Friday, days after activists staged a protest in front of its Touro Street headquarters and filled every seat in its board meeting room at a boisterous public hearing.
The original proposal, touted as a way to end barriers keeping many ex-offenders out of public housing, said HANO would 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 would either admit the applicants or send their cases to a three-member panel for closer review.
Crimes that would warrant the panel’s review include convictions for armed robbery, homicide, kidnapping and several others.
That original draft said the authority also would encourage 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. The new proposal would make the new screening system mandatory for all managers.
Unless the authority tells them otherwise, “each housing provider is expected to comply with these procedures,” the revised policy states. If private managers wish to deviate from the plan, they must provide HANO officials with a legal or contractual justification.
Stand With Dignity and Voice Of The Ex-offender, two activist groups that pushed the authority for the more sweeping policy, praised the adjustment on Monday. The two groups, and others, have long criticized private managers for not publicizing the criteria they use to disqualify housing candidates and for turning away applicants for what advocates say are arbitrary reasons.
“After four years, HANO listened to a packed board room last week and has changed the policy to make it mandatory on private third-party managers,” Stand With Dignity organizer Alfred Marshall said.
The groups have other gripes, however. Even as the authority is trying to loosen eligibility rules for ex-convicts, it is proposing to take a harder line on drug and alcohol abuse.
The agency now bars 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. But it wants to change that to bar all those who have “engaged in the behavior” within a year of their applications. The more sweeping policy is too broad, advocates say.
“This policy grants HANO and private managers the ability to deny public housing to individuals engaging non-destructively in drugs and alcohol based on a discretionary and vague standard,” Voice Of The Ex-offender Executive Director Norris Henderson said. “We all know that Americans of all income levels use drugs and alcohol, and this should not be used to divide our families.”
The two groups also want the housing authority to allow applicants who have been arrested and are facing pending charges — and whose public housing admission would otherwise be on hold until their cases are adjudicated — to live with relatives in public housing while their cases play out. Those relatives should not be penalized for housing their family members during that period, activists say. They also want HANO to have more say over who is denied housing at the privately managed properties.
Activists on Monday began a 24-hour protest in front of the authority’s headquarters, ahead of the board’s consideration of the policy on Tuesday.
Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.