MML#2 – Housing can be Lifelong Challenge for People with Criminal Records
(Crystal A. Proxmire, Oct. 27, 2022)
Muskegon, MI – For those trying to get their life on track after an incarceration, finding a place to live and an employer that will give them a chance are common problems. But it isn’t just those fresh out of jail that struggle.
“We think of the first couple years, but it goes on a lot longer than that,” said Aaron Saganuma, Reentry Coordinator for Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office. “Years after this thing happened, they’re still encountering barriers to success.”
Saganuma was part of a panel discussion on housing access for justice system impacted individuals at the Michigan Municipal League convention held recently in Muskegon. In Washtenaw County, he said, “the Sheriff wanted to identify causes for recidivism.” Mental health issues and substance abuse were big factors, and, he said, “One of the big stand out causes was housing.” There, 47% of people in jail had experienced homelessness or housing insecurity in the five years preceding their arrest.
Upon finishing their sentence, those with records often fail background checks needed to secure an apartment. Some may have family they could stay with, but landlords may not allow it. And even in public housing, the rules vary.
Michael Polsinelli, Field Office Director for Michigan State Office of US Department of Housing and Urban Development, explained that individual housing commissions have the leeway to set their own restrictions as far as allowing those with a record to be residents. There are 119 Housing Commissions across the state. Some allow felons and others do not. There are only two statutory restrictions: those on the lifetime sex offender registry and those convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine in HUD housing. “Those are the only two restrictions you have to have; the rest are up to you,” Polsinelli said.
A handful of housing commissions have changed their rules to be less restrictive, including Ann Arbor, Detroit, Jackson and Kalamazoo.
Laurie Ingram, Executive Director of the Jackson Housing Commission was also among the panelists. She went through the process of her commission lessening restrictions to make housing accessible to more people who have served their time.
“It’s not really popular,” she said. “You don’t go to your communities and say ‘we have to house more felons’ and get people excited… NIMBYism is everywhere.”
But for Ingram and other pushing to have hard conversations in their communities, it’s a matter of wanting to see individuals who have paid their debt to society have a chance to succeed. “We have to decide, are we moving forward?” she said. To the elected officials at the conference, Ingram would “encourage you in your municipalities, take a look at the regulations and decide if you believe housing is a human right, and look for places in the regulation where restrictions could be changed… The restrictions that prevent people from accessing housing are your community’s restrictions, not HUD’s… I hope we have the courage of our convictions to do the work to serve those communities.”
Ashley Golden is the Director of Nation Outside, a Michigan-based organization dedicated to supporting justice-impacted individuals. “We see this all the time. It’s not only impacting the person, but it also impacts their families,” Golden said. “2-3 million people in Michigan have been to jail or prison. This isn’t a small problem.”
She’s seen individuals who have struggled to find housing even when a conviction was in the distant past. “Even 15-20 years down the road you face the same problems,” Golden said.
Not having a place to call home makes it harder to stay gainfully employed. “If you don’t have a place to live, you can’t brush you teeth or wear clean clothes to go to an interview or to see clients,” said Suganuma.
Sometimes even being homeless itself is what draws people back into the system
“The criminalization of poverty is still happening in many of our communities. Like it’s illegal to sleep in a home without electricity,” Ingram said. Trespassing, such as sleeping in parks or dumpsters, can be the reason someone goes back to jail. Those with criminal records related to nonpayment of tickets or driving without a license, or failing to pay fines face similar barriers to those with more violent pasts.
“It’s easy to think having formerly incarcerated neighbors would be less safe,” Suganuma said, but added that when people have a safe place to live they are less likely to re-offend than if they are homeless. “We have to allow them to change their lives.”
In addition to reviewing local housing commission rules, there are other ways officials and concerned residents can help the path to success be just a little more smooth.
In Detroit, Golden said, landlords cannot inquire about convictions in the initial application process, only after the applicant has passed all other requirements. Other Ban the Box efforts encourage landlords or employers not to ask about criminal history.
Another push is for communities to outlaw Source of Income Discrimination, meaning that landlords cannot turn away potential tenants because of how they pay, including if it’s with a HUD voucher. Polsinelli also said that in some places there are vouchers that are not being used because landlords won’t accept them.
Another way local leaders can help is by setting up expungement clinics to help residents who qualify to have old convictions removed from their records. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office has resources to help with expungements, though there is a backlog of requests. Residents can also learn about the benefits of “Clean Slate” laws passed in recent years.
“We have a lot of providers that don’t want to work with people in that community,” Suganuma said.
“If we want to make change, we have to stand on our values.”
This article is part of a series about the Michigan Municipal League’s 2022 Convention that took place in Muskegon Oct. 19-21. We will be sharing articles from the convention over the next few weeks to help readers better understand the issues local governments face. If you aren’t already on our list for Daily Headlines, please sign up HERE so you won’t miss any of this exciting and informative series! Find other MML related articles HERE.
For more on Michigan Municipal League, check out their website at http://www.mml.org.