Housing: The Key to Successful Reentry for People with Criminal Records

By Kate Walz and Marie Claire Tran-Leung

“Where will I sleep tonight?”

Every year, roughly 640,000 people — about the population of Washington, D.C. — leave federal and state prisons. Eleven million are processed through local jails annually. On the day they are released, and indeed for the years to come, the answer these people have to that question above will dramatically affect their ability to successfully rejoin their communities and lead healthy, productive lives.

Research shows that safe, stable, and affordable housing plays a crucial role in successful re-entry. But unfortunately, far too many people with criminal records remain locked out.

People with criminal records face a host of barriers to safe and affordable housing.

While lack of access to affordable housing is a problem of epidemic proportions nationwide, it is particularly severe for the more than 70 million people in this country who have criminal records. Because justice-involved individuals often struggle to secure and maintain employment after exiting the criminal justice system, federally subsidized housing is a crucial lifeline. But, by both federally subsidized housing providers and landlords in the private marketplace, justice-involved individuals are often turned away because of their records. In a 2015 survey of formerly incarcerated people, about 4 out of every 5 respondents said they had experienced such treatment.

What’s worse, because people of color disproportionately bear the brunt of our overly punitive and expansive criminal justice system, admission rejections based on criminal records are often used as proxies for racial discrimination, causing the devastating consequences of housing instability and homelessness to fall ever-more hard on African Americans and Latino/as.

The consequences of lack of access to housing are particularly acute for justice-involved individuals.

Anyone facing homelessness or housing instability is likely to experience significant physical and financial turmoil, but the stakes are even higher for people with records. Barriers to housing can layer on top of and exacerbate other collateral consequences associated with a criminal record — like barriers to employment — further undermining one’s ability to reenter the community. Moreover, people who are homeless are also more likely to face incarceration, making it more likely that justice-involved people without stable housing will recidivate.