Tag Archives: Housing

The Long Road Home: Decreasing Barriers to Public Housing for People with Criminal Records

For individuals with a criminal history, finding affordable and stable housing becomes extremely difficult in a place like the Bay Area, with high cost and limited supply. People with a criminal history can legally be excluded from housing. In a survey from the 2015 Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Forward Together report, “Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families,” 79% of people who had been incarcerated were either ineligible or denied public housing as a result of criminal history. More than half of those released from jail or prison have unstable or nonexistent housing.

Safe and affordable housing is a fundamental basis for success in all areas of life, and without stable housing, an individual’s health, employment and education opportunities, family reunification and social networks are compromised. In Alameda County, California, nearly 20,000 people are at risk of residential instability because of having a recent criminal history.

Having housing improves health directly and indirectly, decreases recidivism, improves the chance of becoming employed and having more income, and helps with family reunification. These factors, known in public health as the social determinants of health, create opportunities to succeed and are known to be important for health and wellbeing. For example:

  • Moving often affects recidivism. The odds of recidivism increase by at least 70% for every time someone who is formerly incarcerated changes their residence.
  • Six randomized control trials analyzed supported employment in public housing against other approaches to help residents find jobs, and found 58% of public housing program participants obtained employment compared to 21% in the control group.
  • More than 70% of those leaving prison indicated that family is an important factor in keeping them out of prison, and up to 82% of people leaving prison or jail expect to live with or get help from their families.
  • Having stable housing upon leaving jail or prison decreases a person’s chance of having their probation revoked.

It’s clear from the research; the lack of stable and affordable housing forces families to frequently move and live in unhealthy and crowded environments, increases stress and depression, and can lead to homelessness. Homelessness brings higher rates of infectious diseases; substance use and mental health disorders; exposure to violence; overexposure to cold and rain; and suicide. Studies show that 25% to 50% of people who are homeless have histories of involvement with the criminal justice system.

Public housing admissions screening policies play an important role in creating the conditions for successful reentry of people who were incarcerated. HIP recently released a report called, “The Long Road Home: Decreasing Barriers to Public Housing for People with Criminal Records” done in partnership with Ella Baker Center for Human Rights (EBC). I worked closely with EBC staff starting in September 2015 to complete this Health Impact Assessment (HIA), as part of my Health & Equity Fellowship with HIP. We studied the Oakland Housing Authority (OHA) as a case study to understand the impacts of screening policies on health.

To fully understand OHA’s admission and screening policies, HIP met with two staff from their office. We learned that OHA denials due to a criminal history in the first round of screening have decreased significantly from 12% to 0.8% between 2010 and 2012. Of those who were screened out by OHA due to a criminal history, 75% request an informal hearing, and 64% of those have the decision reversed, allowing them to continue on in the application process. This is a powerful statement for the presentation of mitigating circumstances; at OHA, when people are allowed to tell their story and present supporting documentation, it often results in a reversal. We know that historical policies have created racial inequities in housing and health outcomes. However, data on race and ethnicity is not being recorded or reported, making it impossible in OHA’s case to analyze inequities in screening practices.

While more people with criminal histories are able to move forward in the screening process when OHA allows them to present mitigating evidence, there are additional changes OHA and other public housing authorities can make to improve housing stability for individuals with criminal history:

  • Allow mitigating circumstances to be presented in the initial application for public housing
  • Ensure proper implementation of policies that allow individuals with criminal history to join their family in public housing, and eliminate any practices of evicting existing residents from public housing for allowing a family member returning from prison or jail or denying admission if there is no valid reason for doing so
  • Collect, track, and publicly report the race and ethnicity of applicants and those screened out due to their criminal history to examine the potential impact of screening policies on people of color with a criminal history

Read more of the findings & recommendations in the full report.

Assessing Health and Equity Impacts of the Proposed Reef Development Project in South Central Los Angeles

Today, Human Impact Partners, Esperanza Community Housing, Strategic Action for a Just Economy and other members of the UNIDAD Coalition are releasing the executive summary of the report Assessing Health and Equity Impacts of the Proposed Reef Development Project in South Central Los Angeles. Our report finds that the proposed Reef Development Project, as currently designed, will place thousands of neighborhood residents at high risk of financial strain or displacement, which could negatively impact their health in many ways.

The Reef Development Project plans for the total renovation and expansion of a commercial area in South Central Los Angeles, and would cover 9.7 acres of land. It includes a 208-room hotel, two high-rise condominium towers, 528 mid-rise residential units, and 21 low-rise live/work residential units. This project is meant to be big. And with big projects come big impacts.

We found that an estimated 4,445 renters who live within ½ mile of the proposed Reef Development Project are already experiencing housing cost burdens and could be at high risk of financial strain or displacement as a result of the development. An additional 39,311 renters who live between ½ mile and 2 miles of the project could be at moderate risk. Overall, 52% of the nearly 84,000 residents living within 2 miles of the project could be at risk of financial strain or displacement as a result of the Reef Development Project.

Residents of the neighborhood came to South Central seeking economic opportunity, and built a thriving community. Over time, however, the city began to engage in a variety of different policies that led to increased segregation, concentrated poverty, and limited opportunity. This was followed by prolonged civic disinvestment that has perpetuated poverty and segregation to this day. Displacement and financial pressures from the Development Project will happen within the context of ongoing challenges with housing affordability and homelessness that are happening in the area. Focus group participants from the area anticipated they may become homeless.

“I keep thinking, ‘What am I going to do if this doesn’t work out? Where am I going to go? Am I going to see my neighbors again? Where am I going to find this kind of community again? Going to have to start over. Going to be homeless, without a family.’” –Anayetzy

Residents are already struggling intensely to afford housing, and are engaging in a variety of methods to address this problem: by making difficult choices on what necessities to do without, by living in overcrowded and substandard housing, and by looking for additional sources of income. Despite these challenges, residents and small business owners in the neighborhood have developed strong social ties and a sense of attachment to the area, and they want to stay. Many of the residents and businesses in South Central have been in the neighborhood for 10-20 years or more.

Community residents who experience financial strain and/or displacement may experience a wide variety of chronic stress-related physical and mental illnesses, including anxiety, depression, hypertension, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and sleep disorders. Additional constraints on health-protecting resources and exposures to health-damaging environments such as substandard and overcrowded housing could further contribute to a variety of negative health outcomes. Disruption of social networks can lead to additional health challenges, including exposure to fragmented social environments that have higher rates of violence and sexually transmitted diseases.

Based on these findings, our primary recommendation to the City and project developers is that the Reef Development Project presents a unique opportunity to engage in a cutting-edge trauma-informed approach to community development. Trauma Informed Community Building (TICB) is a new innovative approach to development that recognizes the existing community as assets and proposes that these assets—or people—are considered the building blocks for the future. We recommend that the developer and the City work together to ensure that the Reef Development Project is developed using the four guiding principles of TICB: 1) Do no harm, 2) Acceptance, 3) Community empowerment, and 4) Reflective process.

In addition, the report makes a series of recommendations to:

  • Produce and protect affordable housing
  • Prevent displacement
  • House and protect the homeless
  • Create good jobs and career pathways for local residents
  • Support small businesses
  • Maintain public transit use by local residents
  • Protect the safety and security of the community
  • Provide green space for neighborhood residents

The report was produced in partnership with Advisory Committee members from: Community Development Technologies, TRUST South LA, Physicians for Social Responsibility – Los Angeles, Natural Resources Defense Council, Public Counsel, St. Francis Center, Advancement Project, All People’s Community Center, Los Angeles County Public Health Department, Occidental College, and a community advocate/column writer.

The report was released at a press event today in Los Angeles. Speakers included:

  • Jim Mangia, MPH, President and CEO of St. John’s Well Child & Family Center
  • Holly Avey, Human Impact Partners
  • Cynthia Bryant, local business owner, student and resident
  • Erendira Morales, local resident
  • Beatriz Solis, The California Endowment
  • Benjamin Torres, President and CEO of CDTech

Visit www.humanimpact.org or unidad coalition website for the executive summary (English), executive summary (Spanish), full report (English), full report (Spanish), and links to a series of blog posts about the project.

Development in South LA: A Threat or an Opportunity?

Today’s guest blog is by SAJE Executive Director, Cynthia Strathmann, PhD. In this blog, she writes about the ripple effects of development in South LA and opportunities for change.

It will come as a surprise to absolutely no one that Los Angeles is in the grip of a housing affordability crisis. Studies last year found Los Angeles to be the least affordable city in the country for renters. The average Los Angeles renter spends 47% of their paycheck on rent; to afford the average apartment a worker would have to make $33 an hour. Read more… 

Speak up! Health is created through collective efforts

This week’s blog was originally posted by The Pump Handle on September 21, 2015. In this post, HIP Co-Director, Jonathan Heller, reflects on how  collective efforts are necessary to improve our health and well-being. 

The dominant narrative in the United States is that, as individuals, we hold the key to our own success. We are told to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and that if we just try hard enough, we’ll succeed. Read more…

Fair Housing for Better Health

One year after Michael Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, galvanizing the Black Lives Matter movement, the role of housing segregation in perpetuating racial injustice is in the news. Residential segregation is one of the major mechanisms that produce racial health disparities in the United States, but there is some reason for optimism that new national policy efforts will challenge ongoing segregation.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule. This rule comes on the heels of the Supreme Court’s June decision that affirmed the legal rights of plaintiffs to challenge housing policies with racially “disparate impacts” – without being required to show that racial discrimination was intentional. A non-profit called the Inclusive Communities Project brought the suit against the state of Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, arguing that Texas was allocating too many of its federally funded tax credits for affordable housing -housing for low-income, predominantly Black residents- to developments in poor, urban neighborhoods. This decision in turn came shortly after the release of a study out of Harvard’s Department of Economics, showing that moving from a high poverty to a low-poverty neighborhood as a young child led to measurable benefits in adulthood. These included better educational outcomes and higher incomes – two of the strongest predictors of health outcomes.

With these findings in mind, the AFFH rule is designed to reduce racial and economic residential segregation, and work towards achieving the unfulfilled promises of the 1968 Housing Act, so that more children gain the benefits of living in high opportunity, low poverty neighborhoods. AFFH asks cities to generate plans for reducing segregation, and connects municipalities to HUD data and support to design and implement these plans. This Supreme Court case, and HUD’s policy response, will be equity wins if they can open up some of America’s wealthy, exclusionary and generally White neighborhoods to affordable housing development. Policy conversations about racially concentrated poverty have too often veered towards pathologizing poor Black communities – created through decades of explicitly racist housing policies – without examination of the processes of exclusion that create concentrated affluence. Sociologist Patrick Sharkey writes forcefully that,

“Living in predominantly black neighborhoods affects the life chances of black Americans not because of any character deficiencies of black people, not because of the absence of contact with whites, but because black neighborhoods have been the object of sustained disinvestment and punitive social policy since the emergence of racially segregated urban communities in the early part of the 20th Century. Residential segregation has been used consistently over time as a means of distributing and hoarding resources and opportunities among white Americans and restricting resources and opportunities from black Americans.”

This “hoarding” creates racially concentrated areas of affluence, dominated by White residents. And these communities receive plenty of government housing subsidies, in the form of mortgage interest tax deductions. One of the ways that rich White neighborhoods maintain their boundaries is through zoning restrictions that make it difficult if not impossible to construct affordable multifamily housing (whether subsidized or not.) Hopefully the AFFH can work towards ensuring that some of these neighborhoods become more racially and economically inclusive.

But some have responded to AFFH as if it’s an indication that building affordable housing in high poverty neighborhoods is necessarily wrong. It’s true that housing alone will not reverse “sustained social disinvestment” in poor Black communities, nor will it transform a punitive criminal justice system into one designed to support health. But good housing combined with sustained and comprehensive investment in public services – services that focus on community well being rather than punishment and incarceration – could work to ensure that people who do live in these neighborhoods also have the opportunity to live healthy lives. Furthermore, as previously high poverty urban neighborhoods across the United States gentrify, permanent affordable housing means that low-income families can stay in these neighborhoods and actually gain some of the benefits of new investments. Building racial and economic health equity will require both approaches – dismantling the policies that allow resource-rich places to exclude poor people, but also directing resources to communities that need them the most.

Public Housing, Public Health and the Public Interest

This blog post was originally published at The Pump Handle on February 18, 2014.

The quality of public housing is a key determinant of health among low-income populations. Substandard housing – where mold, pest infestations, fire hazards, or other health risks are present – is associated with a wide range of health problems, including respiratory infections, asthma, lead poisoning and mental health issues. Nor is illness the only concern: Each year millions of Americans are injured, and tens of thousands killed, by accidents in and around their homes that may be linked to housing conditions. Access to safe and affordable housing is not just an economic issue, but a major public health issue.

However, much of the public housing in the United States is in disrepair – unhealthy, unsafe, even uninhabitable. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has been working for many years to fix the problem, but with the cost of bringing public housing up to standard estimated at more than $20 billion nationwide, it’s a daunting task. (It doesn’t help that HUD’s budget, especially the portion for maintenance and renovation, which was inadequate in the first place, has been repeatedly slashed for the last 30 years.)

In 2011, Congress passed the Rental Assistance Demonstration Project (RAD), a pilot program providing for the purchase and renovation of some 60,000 units of public housing by nonprofit organizations or private entities. A linchpin of the program is the requirement that for 15 to 20 years the new owners must continue to make the housing available to the same populations that currently live there.

Public housing has received increasing attention from the field of Health Impact Assessment, which evaluates multiple health impacts of proposed policies and projects. HIAs have been conducted on housing inspections in Ohio and in Marin County, Calif., and on the HOPE VI program in San Francisco. Currently the Health Impact Project is in the midst of an HIA done in collaboration with HUD about changing the rules for elderly and disabled public housing.  In 2011, Human Impact Partners released an HIA of the RAD proposal.

Recently San Francisco, where soaring rents are forcing increasing numbers of low- and medium-income renters out of the city, was awarded a grant from HUD to rehabilitate its public housing stock – enough to renovate three-fourths of all units. In order to qualify for renovation, the units must be sold to private or nonprofit owners who get tax credits. The units then become Section 8 voucher properties (where low-income tenants pay 30 percent of their rent and vouchers make up the difference to the landlord), and the owners sign a contract to keep them as such for 20 years.

Human Impact Partners’ HIA of the RAD project predicted that the program would lead to improved housing quality, decreased stress among residents and decreased crime around renovated housing. But the devil is in the details. We also predicted that RAD, if not done well, could lead to poor health due to potential evictions, displacement, lack of authentic resident inclusion in decision-making, and stress from not knowing whether one’s housing is secure over the long term.

Here’s what we believe San Francisco must do to avoid those potential negative impacts:

  • Ensure that clear standards are set for protecting residents from evictions, displacement and changes in affordability.
  • Require new management to have a long-term plan to preserve the housing stock.
  • Create funding for services, support and protections for those typically hard to house, such as the elderly, large families, people with disabilities, those who have been arrested or incarcerated, and those with poor credit histories.
  • Create an oversight committee of leaders of resident organizations in the housing sites, housing advocates and elected officials.
  • Develop metrics that truly measure determinants of health to understand how RAD affects health over time.

Affordable housing is not only vital for low-income populations, but to the community at large. We’ve seen what happened when the mental health system that helped those who could not live without support was dismantled. Homelessness and incarceration shot through the roof. We don’t want that to happen if public housing goes away. The bottom line: We just aren’t sure that the RAD program offers enough protection to ensure that private interests wouldn’t eventually win out over the public good.

Think about it: You’re a developer who can afford to buy hundreds of units of public housing, get tax breaks from the government for improving them.  All you have to do is agree that for 15 to 20 years you will keep them available for low-income populations.  After that, you must consider keeping them available, but you’re free to sell them at market rates. In markets such as San Francisco, where even modest units have no shortage of takers eager to rent or buy at prices unthinkable until recently, would you think about public health, or your own opportunity to profit?

Policymakers must consider ways to require or incentivize the continued availability of affordable units. Policymakers who want to consider health and quality of life for their most vulnerable residents must assure that safe, well-maintained housing continues to be available for low-income residents.