Housing Rules Could Force Newly Released Prisoners Into Homelessness

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Above photo:  Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

As thousands of people are freed from local jails, a group of nonprofits and activist organizations says the city’s housing authority must revamp its policies that banish the formerly incarcerated.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the population of New York City’s jails has been nearly halved. According to New York state data, the city’s average daily jail population dropped from 7,214 people in June 2019 to 3,878 in June 2020—a 46 percent decline. And according to the most recent jail reduction fact sheet from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, the city released nearly 3,400 people from local jails between March 16 and May 25 alone. These releases most likely represent the largest single cut to the city’s jail population in history.

Housing rights advocates, however, warn that a significant percentage of the people released will most likely have nowhere to go unless the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) curtails longstanding policies that have discriminated against justice-involved people or the previously incarcerated. A previously unreported May 6 letter from a  group of 20 housing rights advocacy organizations demanded that NYCHA end long-criticized policies that bar recently arrested people from even visiting the city’s 326 public housing facilities. These policies include provisions allowing NYCHA to banish recently arrested people for years or, worse, permanently bar children as young as 16 from living with their families in public housing.

The letter’s signatories—including the Vera Institute of Justice, Legal Aid Society, and John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York’s Institute for Justice and Opportunity—wrote that unless NYCHA significantly changes course, its policies will force many of the people recently released from jail during the pandemic right into homelessness.

“We appreciate that the City and State have taken steps to stem the spread of the coronavirus in jails and prisons and keep our communities safe, though work here is not done and each should release many more people,” the letter states. “However, we are concerned about the dire emergency housing needs of justice-involved people due to early release. New York City is already in the midst of a housing crisis, and more than half of the people who come home from prison each year are released into homelessness. Many of the people being released may be former NYCHA residents and/or still have family living in NYCHA developments.”

In June, the agency responded to the advocates’ open letter by stating it would temporarily waive some guest-visitation restrictions and speed up reviews for those who ask to overturn permanent bans from city properties.

“We know that it is imperative for NYCHA to continue to update its policies to ensure we provide fair and just access to housing while also balancing community safety goals,” NYCHA chairperson and CEO Gregory Russ wrote in a June 12 letter obtained by The Appeal.

But in an email to NYCHA also obtained by The Appeal, the advocates wrote that the agency’s proposed changes weren’t acceptable.

“We are disappointed with NYCHA’s response to our request and to the crisis,” the group wrote. “The changes NYCHA is making to the temporary guest policy do nothing to address the housing needs of criminal legal system-impacted individuals during a global pandemic. Those needs are the entire reason underlying our request.”

In an email to The Appeal, a NYCHA spokesperson said the agency will continue to examine its policies amid the pandemic. “NYCHA is currently reviewing our policies related to criminal justice involvement as we strive to balance the safety of our residents and the needs of those formerly incarcerated long term,” the spokesperson said. “To immediately respond to the issues raised during the current COVID-19 crisis, we worked to create an electronic PE Lift process and are temporarily allowing visitors to remain on NYCHA properties while they await their application reviews.”

NYCHA maintains some of the strictest eviction policies in the nation. Those arrested on misdemeanor charges can be banned from public housing facilities for a minimum of three years, while those arrested on felony charges can be banned for up to six. Anyone caught committing a crime on NYCHA grounds can be banished for the rest of their lives, and those caught harboring unauthorized people can themselves then be evicted as well. 

Standards for “permanent exclusion” are far more subjective than those in criminal court; NYCHA maintains the right to evict tenants for conduct it says endangers “the health and safety of other tenants,” or for “sex or morals” offenses, “common law nuisance[s], and other similarly vague categories. 

“A person who’s excluded is not even allowed to visit for Christmas or birthdays,” Nora Reissig, the former director of NYCHA’s Department of Family Services, told The Appeal. “This tears families apart. For most families that’s a joyous event, but not if you have somebody who has to sneak in or hide if anyone knocks on the door.” In 2013, the New York Times reported that roughly 1,500 recent parolees had listed NYCHA properties as their home address and thus were most likely living unauthorized in public housing. In 2016, the Village Voice profiled Darnell Smith, who said he was living unauthorized in his family’s Harlem apartment after leaving prison and repeatedly hid in a closet from NYCHA investigators to make sure his wife and children did not get evicted.

In 2013, Reissig helped NYCHA and the Vera Institute of Justice launch what is now known as NYCHA’s Family Reentry Program, which was then a pilot project. It allows incarcerated people to return to NYCHA housing immediately after leaving prison. In 2016, Vera reported that just one of the initial 85 participants was convicted of a new charge while in the program.

Although NYCHA has since made the Family Reentry Program permanent, advocates for the formerly imprisoned say the program reviews and approves far too few applications each year and is not prepared for the influx of people released amid the pandemic.

JoAnne Page, president of the Fortune Society (another nonprofit that signed the May 6 letter), told The Appeal that she was disappointed that NYCHA hadn’t expanded the re-entry program before the pandemic hit. She referenced a study showing that in 2017 more than half of those released from New York state prisons move directly into homeless shelters—and said that many of those people could potentially find homes with families in NYCHA properties.

“Permanent exclusion has a disparate impact on people of color,” she said. “You have to look at the damage it does to the poorest New Yorkers. When you look through a racial-equity lens, there’s an additional impetus to change a policy that, just like what you have in the criminal justice system, disproportionately impacts people of color and their families.”

Similarly, Kinshasa Hillery, director of the Legal Empowerment and Assistance Program at RiseBoro Community Partnership (a nonprofit that signed the May letter), told The Appeal that she’s seen NYCHA bring eviction proceedings against one woman with mental illness who allowed an unauthorized visitor to enter her home.

“They just need to see an arrest record,” she said. “They can put you through eviction proceedings regardless of the outcome of actual criminal proceedings. It’s always been a very powerful tool for NYCHA to over-police and overregulate its community.”

In the May 6 letter, housing advocates asked NYCHA for four specific changes: waive temporary-guest requirements for a minimum of six months and commit to not evicting anyone who brings in an unauthorized guest for the next year, temporarily suspend permanent-exclusion inspections,  automatically lift any permanent exclusion more than five years old, ensure that every tenant is properly informed if NYCHA changes any of the aforementioned policies.

Instead, the agency offered a compromise that advocates say is inadequate. In its June 12 response, NYCHA wrote that temporary guests will be allowed to stay in public housing while their applications are pending (NYCHA typically has 60 days to approve or deny a visitation request) and, if denied, will be given 30 days to submit documents showing any unauthorized tenants have left the property. NYCHA also said it would “expedite” re-entry reviews, but only for people who requested the review, which critics say is a difficult and byzantine process.

“By continuing to penalize residents and applicants with conviction histories, NYCHA is relying on a fundamentally racist and unjust system and is a part of the system of perpetual punishment faced by over-policed communities of color,” the advocates wrote back. “It is unsupportable for NYCHA to continue its policies that preclude the victims of this unjust system from being able to live with, or even visit, their families. NYCHA must reckon with its own racist policies and practices and the ways in which it, as a landlord, oppresses people of color.”