Expand Public Housing Access for People with Convictions

This year approximately 600,000 people will be released from prison, and they will confront multiple barriers as they rejoin society. Securing a job, transportation, and healthcare can be particularly daunting obstacles. But the most immediate priority for many of the formerly incarcerated is even more fundamental: finding a place to sleep. A lack of accessible housing is a problem far more prevalent for people exiting prison. Those who have been in prison are ten times more likely than the general public to experience homelessness, and for people incarcerated more than once, the risk is even greater. Among the formerly incarcerated, those with mental illness have higher than average rates of homelessness and housing insecurity. Research also suggests that homelessness can be a precursor to prison, as 15% of incarcerated people experience homelessness in the year prior to being locked up. Studies show that individuals who receive housing services after incarceration have a reduced rate of recidivism. But current policies governing public housing restrict services for formerly incarcerated people, often barring those with a criminal record from applying or requiring eviction of current tenants convicted of a crime. Such barriers are exacerbated by the disparate treatment justice-involved people may face from landlords and public housing authorities. While the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued guidance in 2016 to address such discrimination, critics assert that the updated rules are vague and rarely enforced. The Task Force believes more accessible public housing is a key federal strategy for reducing recidivism. This recommendation calls on Congress and HUD to revise the laws and policies that make it harder for people who are or were under criminal justice supervision to find safe, stable, and affordable housing. Success in reentry may depend on it.


The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) should provide a steady level of funding for and expand access to safe, stable, and affordable housing for people with criminal records.

Implementation Steps

  1. Congress should revisit the public housing authority policy to ensure that people are not denied public housing solely because of a criminal record.
  2. HUD should expand grant opportunities for community groups, nonprofits, and faith-based organizations that support reentry housing initiatives.
  3. HUD should develop an online resource that provides easily accessible information on reentry resources ranging from housing to social services.
  4. HUD should provide further training and technical assistance to HUD field staff to ensure local and regional housing officials know and understand the latest guidance regarding housing for justice-involved individuals.
  5. HUD should provide additional support and resources for those who are most at risk of homelessness during the reentry process, particularly single people without families, individuals suffering from mental illness, and those with specialized medical needs.

Annotated Citations

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It Starts with Housing: Public Housing Agencies Are Making Second Chances Real. June 2016. More than 600,000 people are released from incarceration every year, and the first question they face upon exiting prison is, “Where am I going to sleep tonight?” Housing agencies make up a critical component of the solution for returning citizens. First, effective partnerships among government, nonprofits, and the private sector must be formed to coordinate outreach and referrals and to ensure that housing authorities focus on providing core housing services. Eligible participants need effective and robust outreach and referral networks to direct them to the right programs. Second, it is essential that programs create dedicated housing for returning citizens, and that those who have family members already residing in certain assisted living programs are enabled to reside with their family members. Because housing is the first step in reentry, it “also provides a platform for the effective delivery of comprehensive supportive services.” Programs must regularly convene to review their services and improve outcomes. There must be open communication among partners providing services, ample connection with family members to ensure added support, and connection with employment agencies to assist with finding work, education, and other training opportunities.

McCarty, Maggie, et al. Drug Testing and Crime-Related Restrictions in TANF, SNAP, and Housing Assistance. Congressional Research Service. 28 November 2016. “This report highlights the variations in federal crime- and drug-related restrictions in the TANF, SNAP, and housing assistance programs. These variations in policy exist across programs, in part, due to the differences in the goals and design of the programs, as well as the laws that govern them. There is also the potential for geographic variation in these policies, attributable to the discretion that federal law leaves to local policymakers. The policy goal behind the devolution of social programs is to allow states and localities to design their programs differently, to reflect their interests, values, and needs. State and local variations in crime- and drug-related restrictions are consistent with that goal. However, inconsistencies in crime- and drug-related policies may have unintended consequences. For example, inconsistent policies may cause confusion among potential recipients, possibly limiting their access to federal assistance for which they are eligible. Variations may also raise questions of equity and fairness. “This report also observes that while some states are increasing their drug-related sanctions (specifically, implementing drug testing policies), most states are opting-out of or modifying the federal drug felon ban in TANF and SNAP. This may raise questions about the appropriateness of current federal policy. For example, some may ask whether the federal policy intentions underlying drug- and crime-related sanctions should override the desires of state and local administrators.”

McKernan, Patricia. “Homelessness and Prisoner Re-Entry: Examining Barriers to Housing.” Volunteers for America, “Among ex-offenders, those with mental illness have higher than average rates of homelessness and housing insecurity.” Even worse, the nation’s lack of affordable housing “leaves ex-offenders competing for the same limited resources with others who have no criminal history.” This article argues for an expansion of transition services and the provision of targeted housing for formerly incarcerated people. While homelessness is not the sole cause of recidivism, it is a significant contributing factor for formerly incarcerated individuals, who face formidable hurdles upon release. For those with the highest risk of recidivism, family ties are generally not strong prior to incarceration, so developing housing options and alternatives for these people is particularly critical to their reentry.

Couloute, Lucius. “Nowhere to Go: Homelessness among formerly incarcerated people.” Prison Policy Initiative. August 2018, This report summarizes original and extant research on the prevalence, causes, and consequences of housing instability after release from prison. It finds that “rates of homelessness are especially high among specific demographics,” including people who have been incarcerated more than once, people recently released from prison, people of color, and women.