One in every five adults in North Carolina – 1.6 million people – have criminal records. These records often serve as modern-day scarlet letters, resulting in hundreds of civil disabilities that isolate individuals from employment, affordable housing, and other opportunities and benefits essential to productive citizenship.
These civil disabilities often take the form of automatic exclusions, even where there is opportunity for discretion and balanced consideration. These automatic exclusions indiscriminately deprive people striving to lead lawful and productive lives of meaningful opportunities to reintegrate within their communities and care for their children. This facilitates cycles of recidivism and undermines the community safety the regulations ostensibly protect.
While Chapel Hill has been at the forefront of policies championing fairness, equity, and inclusion, our community is not insulated from use of such automatic exclusions. In fact, our admissions policy for public housing applicants with criminal records is particularly egregious.
According to Chapel Hill’s Public Housing Policy, any record of “illegal drug activity” bars admission to public housing for 15 years, while any record of “criminal activity involving physical violence to persons or property” bars admission for 10.
These automatic exclusion periods are a drastic departure from those of three to five years in neighboring communities. Equally problematic is Chapel Hill’s failure to distinguish between misdemeanor or felony convictions, or even between convictions and dismissed charges. Nor does the Department of Housing attempt to make such distinctions in its administration of the policy: applicants are automatically denied admission whether they have a 15-year-old dismissed drug charge or a recent armed robbery conviction.
130 denied access
At least 130 low-income individuals have been denied access to public housing under this policy since 2010.
Many of the denials were based on criminal charges that had been dismissed; several others were based on long-ago misdemeanor convictions. Not captured in official records are individuals discouraged from even applying to public housing because of the exclusion policy, or those forced to choose between remaining in public housing and being reunited with family members with criminal records
This draconian policy is at odds with the ideals we cherish in Chapel Hill and is inconsistent with federal regulations and guidance.
As explained in a 2010 letter from Shaun Donovan, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, the only explicit bans on public housing occupancy based on criminal activity are those stemming from methamphetamine manufacture or sexual offenses. Donovan urged public housing authorities to craft flexible admissions policies that balance community safety with inclusive practices and “help ex-offenders gain access to one of the most fundamental building blocks of a stable life – a place to live.”
The Justice In Action Committee of the Town of Chapel Hill recently decried the inequities of this policy in a letter to the Chapel Hill Department of Housing, explaining the policy “unfairly disadvantages applicants with criminal charges or records, thus serving as a barrier to their productive reentry into society.”
The committee recommended the Department (1) not consider arrest or unproven allegations made against applicants, (2) distinguish between felony and misdemeanor convictions, (3) reduce the exclusionary period, and (4) eliminate automatic denials in favor of case-specific review.
Striking a balance
We applaud the committee for recommending these revisions and we are encouraged the town has recently indicated a willingness to address the issue. The proposed revisions strike a balance between the need to help low-income individuals move beyond their past mistakes and the ability to exclude individuals who truly pose a meaningful risk to other tenants.
We join the committee in calling for the Department of Housing to revise their current policies to ensure fair and reasonable access by our citizens in need of affordable housing, bringing Chapel Hill in line with state and national policy recommendations supporting inclusion of those who at one point have faced a criminal charge.
This commentary was submitted by James Williams, chief public defender; Stephanie Perry and Wanda Hunter, co-chairs of the Organizing Against Racism Alliance; Pastor Lavisha Williams of St Joseph’s CME Church; Daniel Bowes, staff attorney at the N.C. Justice Center; Caitlin Fenhagen, deputy capital defender; the UNC Center for Civil Rights and the Chapel Hill/Carrboro NAACP.