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

Published Date
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Health Impact Project

Historically, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development policies have exposed people with a criminal history and their families to eviction and denial of housing. Human Impact Partners, in collaboration with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, conducted an HIA that assessed the health and equity impacts of public housing screening policies that exclude people with a criminal history, using the Oakland Housing Authority (OHA) in California as a case study.

The HIA’s findings include:

  • Lack of affordable housing leads to poor health outcomes.
  • There is no evidence that presence of a criminal record is associated with inability to be a responsible tenant.
  • Myriad policies and practices have led to overrepresentation of people of color in the criminal justice system. Because of this, denial of public housing admissions based on a criminal record is a violation of the Fair Housing Act.
  • The OHA decreased denials of admission because of a criminal history in the first round of screening from a high of 12 percent in 2010 to as low as 0.8 percent in 2012. OHA did not explain the decline, but the HIA authors later found that the authority had been sued and forced to change its practices.
  • Among applicants who were rejected for housing because of a criminal history, 75 percent requested an informal hearing; of those, 64 percent had the decision reversed, allowing them to continue the application process.

The HIA’s recommendations include:

  1. Allow mitigating circumstances to be presented as part of the initial application for public housing. This would decrease the time and human resources needed for informal hearings.
  2. OHA should revise its policies and practices to allow people with a criminal history to join their families in public housing. OHA said it already was doing this, but anecdotal evidence suggested that people were still being denied.
  3. HUD should require that public housing authorities track and publicly report data on the use of criminal histories in housing application decisions, including race and ethnicity of applicants, and do so in a consistent manner.


The federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission released guidance in 2016, stating that public housing authorities should no longer consider the existence of a criminal record as an eligibility criterion.

OHA pushed back on the report’s recommendations. The agency stated that it does not evict tenants who have a family member with a criminal record staying with them. OHA further said that tracking and reporting admission denial information by race would be too difficult and that it would only do so if ordered to by the federal government. Agency personnel saw no need to incorporate mitigating information in the initial application process and expressed concern that doing so might introduce bias against the applicant.

Human Impact Project’s partners, the Ella Baker Center and the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, plan to use the HIA in other jurisdictions.


This Health Impact Assessment Report first appeared in The Cross-Sector Toolkit for Health. The Cross-Sector Toolkit for Health was originally developed by the Health Impact Project, formerly a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts. The creation of this resource was supported by a grant from the Health Impact Project. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Pew Charitable Trusts, or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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