In June 2014, we wrote in this forum to draw attention to what was then a burgeoning conversation on the need to reform Chapel Hill’s public housing admissions policy to provide community members with criminal records access to, in the words of HUD Secretary Sean Donovan, “one of the most fundamental building blocks of a stable life: a place to live.”
A year later, we write to thank and praise town leaders and staff for engaging in a lengthy, high-level dialogue that has culminated in the adoption of transformational admissions policy reforms. These reforms strike a balance between the need to help community members move beyond their past mistakes and the ability to exclude individuals who truly pose a meaningful risk to the health and safety of other tenants.
As described in our previous letter, Chapel Hill’s previous public housing admissions policy automatically excluded applicants with any record of “illegal drug activity” within 15 years of application; the policy also barred applicants with any record of “criminal activity involving physical violence to person or property” for 10 years. In both its language and in practice, the policy did not distinguish between misdemeanor or felony convictions, or even between convictions and dismissed charges. Between 2010 and 2013, at least 130 low-income individuals were denied access to public housing under this policy. Many more individuals were likely dissuaded from even applying for public housing; still others were forced to choose between continuing to live in good, affordable housing and sharing shelter with family members with criminal records.
On May 1, 2015, the Town of Chapel Hill amended several significant aspects of its public housing admissions policy.
First, in determining whether an applicant has engaged in “criminal activity,” the policy now distinguishes between convictions and dismissed charges.
Second, the policy distinguishes between misdemeanor and felony offenses and otherwise takes into account the seriousness of the specific criminal activity.
Third, the policy significantly reduces the periods of time during which applicants’ criminal activities will impact their eligibility for public housing. For example, the “exclusion period” for selling or distributing drugs has been reduced from 15 years to 10 years. Similarly, the exclusion periods for felony assault and felony fraud have been reduced from 15 years to 7 years and 3 years, respectively; while the exclusion period for misdemeanor larceny has been reduced from 10 years to 2 years.
Fourth and most importantly, these exclusion periods are no longer automatic exclusion periods; instead, they are now discretionary exclusion periods. A finding that an applicant engaged in criminal activity within a relevant exclusion period will now result in an individualized assessment of the applicant’s risk to the health and safety of other tenants. The policy identifies several factors to be considered in this assessment, including the seriousness of the criminal activity, the length of time since the criminal activity occurred, the potential impact of a denial of admission on other members of the applicant’s family, and evidence of rehabilitation.
We did not mince our words last year when we criticized the town’s policies as “draconian” and out of line with our community’s values of fairness, equity, and inclusion. And we will not mince our words now in praising the robust response of town officials and staff.
Chapel Hill’s public housing policy, as applied to applicants with criminal records, is now among the most fair and sensible in North Carolina and the nation. In embracing these reforms, Chapel Hill is not only meaningfully responding to the needs of a marginalized population within our community, it is also serving as a beacon for the many communities across our state and nation looking for ways to reintegrate individuals with criminal records in a manner that strengthens families and communities.
Throughout this process, we acted as strong advocates for those in our community with criminal records as well as concerned citizens, and we were consistently treated by town officials as partners in an effort to make Chapel Hill a better place to live for all of its community members. Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt, Councilwoman Sally Greene, Office of Housing and Community Executive Director Loryn Clark, Police Chief Chris Blue, Public Housing Director Tina Vaughn, Tiffanie Sneed, and Sarah Vinas were particularly instrumental in developing these transformational reforms and deserve special praise.
Moving forward, we will monitor the use of the new admissions policy to ensure it is as fair and equitable in practice as it is on paper. We will also build upon our prior conversations with town officials to identify other sensible policy reforms that would restore opportunities for men and women with criminal records to share in the prosperity of our community.
This column was submited by James E. Williams Jr., Chief Public Defender, District 15B; Daniel Bowes, Attorney, North Carolina Justice Center; Caitlin Fenhagen, Deputy Capital Defender; Will Hendrick, Chair, Chapel Hill Justice In Action Committee; Stephanie Perry and Wanda Hunter, Co-Chairs, Organizing Against Racism Alliance; Pastor Lavisha Williams, St. Joseph’s CME Church of Chapel Hill; the UNC Center for Civil Rights and Chapel Hill/Carrboro NAACP