Ex-Offenders and Chicago Public Housing

According to an October 17, 2013 article in the Chicago Tribune the Chicago Housing Authority may be considering changing the policy on allowing ex-offenders in public housing. Ex-offenders have long faced barriers when trying to gain access to public housing. Currently HUD requires public housing authorities to establish a lifetime ban on admission for people who have produced methamphetamine and sexual offenders who are subject to a lifetime registration requirement. Local public housing authorities, however, are able to add their own restrictions on top of those that are federally required. The CHA denies applicants for Housing Choice Vouchers if either the applicant or a household member has engaged in drug-related or violent criminal activity during the 5 years prior to screening. Often though, when enforcing the waiting period the CHA looks at when the ex-offender was released from prison and not at when the offense took place. This means that many ex-offenders are denied access to public housing many years after their offense took place.

While many people may support denying ex-offenders access to public housing, they may not realize the consequences. Homeless shelters are often the only place these people have to go, the Chicago Tribune article cited a study that showed 48% of the people using homeless shelters in Chicago are ex-offenders. Because CHA includes household members as those who are banned, often this means that families cannot be reunited for fear of losing housing for the entire family. Juvenile offenders are not exempt and cannot rejoin their parents' household so they lose out on the support system their family may be able to provide, a support system that is essential to their successful rehabilitation in many cases. Ex-offenders without stable housing, and without support systems are more likely to re-offend, yet the CHA has prevented them from having either. 

While the CHA has made nothing official, former CHA CEO Charles Woodyard seemed to suggest that the Authority was open to the idea. The problem now is how to implement it. How can you explain to the residents of mixed-income developments, which were developed partially as a response to the crime of former CHA buildings, that they will now be living next to ex-offenders? How will the screening process work? Which offenses will no longer require a waiting period? What will CHA do to ensure these developments remain safe? Undoubtedly there will be many opponents to allowing ex-offenders access to public housing, but it's also clear that something needs to change.