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HANO to make criminal background checks more liberal for housing assistance

29th March 2016   ·   0 Comments

By Prescotte Stokes III
Contributing Writer

The voices of two dozen protesters chanting, ‘Human needs. Not corporate greed!’ filled the air on Monday (March 21) evening in the typically quiet Gentilly neighborhood where the Housing Authority of New Orleans’ offices are located. The rally was held ahead of the final public hearing meeting before HANO submits a newly revised plan to its board that lets individuals with criminal backgrounds live in subsidized apartments under certain circumstances.

The new plan that was announced in February takes a step towards providing stability for and reuniting families of formerly incarcerated people. A process to allow the additions of adults to existing leases was included in the plan.

HANO-protestor-2-032816Charles Joyner, a local resident who attended the rally, says the current policies that can have a Section 8 recipient’s housing voucher stripped if a person with a criminal background is added to the lease is unfair and unjust.

“How can you sit there and just let these people go to waste and just treat them like they are nothing?” said Joyner.

The changes being proposed would apply to public housing sites that are run by HANO, Section 8 housing vouchers and other sites managed by private third-party entities. The Housing Authority’s executive director will select a three-member panel — made up of two senior HANO representatives and a resident representative – that will be tasked with reviewing appeals of housing applications for people convicted for certain crimes.

Alfred Marshall, organizer for the non-profit organization Stand With Dignity, has been demanding that HANO revise its current policies against ex-criminals since 2013. He says the most recent draft of the plan still presents barriers.

“Now you want to do a criminal background check which has a seven-year look back period and we’re saying look back at least three years, “ said Marshall.

Inside the meeting more than 80 community members stared at the members of HANO’s board and voiced their concerns for almost two hours. Touching on everything from slumlords in the private sector to recently released relatives who are becoming part of the city’s’ homeless population or ending up back in jail.

Calvin Russell, a local resident at the meeting, told HANO members that he has a son who is currently incarcerated and pending release. Upon release his son will be required to give his address to probation officers.

“Either way it go, I’m going to take the risk for my son, whether it’s hiding him in the closet or under the bed I’m going to do it,” said Russell.

Gregg Fortner, executive director of HANO, says all of the current policies were developed in conjunction with federal guidelines. He says the appeal process has always been in place, but the new plan gives the three-member panel more liberal criteria to follow.

“The length of time of the conviction, the seriousness of the crime – all those things are being considered now. You’ve got 3,200 housing authorities you can check with across the country. See if you can find one that has as liberal policies as us,” said Fortner.

Organizers from Stand With Dignity and the Vera Institute for Justice who had some input in crafting the plan praised the new policies during the meeting, but offered ways HANO could continue to make improvements.

Collette Tippy, an organizer with Stand With Dignity, proposed to board members that private developers who receive federal affordable housing funding be required to follow the same procedures as HANO direct run sites and Section 8 vouchers. They also want to maintain oversight of the private developers and ask that they publicly report data from those sites.

“The way that third party managers are being treated in this policy gives them far too much space to do whatever they want. They are getting public dollars, they need to be accountable to a public entity,” said Tippy.

Sofia Ashley, a Section 8 landlord, was in attendance for the meeting and she says she agrees with members of the community that private developers and landlords should be held accountable.

“I’m not afraid to offer housing to people with criminal backgrounds. In fact, I want to because I know people struggle with HANO. But listening to these stories is eye-opening,” said Ashley.

Fortner says the plan is just a starting point where HANO can collect more data. But he says once the plan passes private developers cannot make their own rules and will be held accountable.

“If a third party can’t follow our policy they have to give us the legal justification why they can’t,” said Fortner.

The plan will go before HANO’s full board on March 29 for approval. After that it will be sent to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to amend the current agency plan.

This article originally published in the March 28, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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