Molly Hilligoss: Change criminal re-entry rules

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Molly Hilligoss.

Covid-19 changed nothing for people with criminal backgrounds searching for affordable housing in Wicomico County.

They were already facing barriers.

Until I began working with previously incarcerated “re-entry” citizens with our Habicorps Workforce Development program last February, I didn’t realize the challenges that formerly incarcerated people face in finding affordable housing. Policy makers must remove these barriers to affordable housing for so many of our citizens before the snowball of Covid-related evictions turns into an avalanche.

Affordable housing is key to people re-entering society and reducing recidivism. That is well documented. While “ban the box” initiatives were introduced and implemented in the state of Maryland in February 2020 with the goal of removing barriers for re-entry citizens seeking jobs following jail or prison time, that is not the case with housing.

Housing experts and the U.S. Housing and Urban Development call these “criminal lookback periods.” HUD says that in order to offer housing, property managers must follow Fair Housing Laws and implement Equal Credit Opportunity application practices.

But, currently, there is a disconnect between what HUD recommends and the reality facing applicants needing affordable housing in Wicomico County.

Habitat for Humanity of Wicomico County found -- during efforts to find affordable housing for its clients -- that 100 percent of the 49 apartment complexes surveyed within the Salisbury city limits, review and prohibit access to rental housing because of criminal backgrounds.

How many years more should a person continue to “pay their debt” to society after a criminal conviction and serving sentenced time?

One apartment complex in Salisbury, built with HUD and Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Funding (which is taxpayer money) managed by a company located in the state of Georgia thinks it is 10 years.

Other property managers for LIHTC apartments built in the last one to nine years think it is seven years. Still another that manages public housing thinks it is five years.

Imagine trying to find affordable housing, which is challenging enough, and not realizing that each apartment complex has different “lookback” rules.

All apartments have lengthy applications and application fees. Only one property management company now serving Wicomico County transparently discloses their lookback period.

When housing agency social workers speak of barriers to affordable housing, this is one of many -- a big one.  And the negative impact on low-income children and families is a well-documented ripple effect.

The city of Salisbury began surveying landlords and property managers last month to find out how property managers make rental admission decisions. Several shared that they are using Maryland Case Search. Words such as “patterns” come up -- problematic because arrests are listed as well as convictions.

My opinion is that not only is this practice wrong, but also it is in direct conflict with recommended guidance from HUD.

The National Association of Realtors published memos to inform their members, but it appears that because no mandate was put into place, nothing happened in Wicomico County. 

This system tears families apart. Too many re-entry individuals can no longer return to live with their families. When families can’t live together, the family income is reduced; family stability is threatened.

According to Vera.org, Maryland incarceration trends show Wicomico County at the highest in the state with 11,824 people per 100,000 people (2015) jailed per year. These arrests and convictions often create negative changes in family structures.

Thirty-nine percent of all children in Wicomico County schools are being raised by single parents. Another 6 percent are being raised by their grandparents. And one-out-of-three single-parent households is living below the poverty line (kidscount.org).

This just scratches the surface in terms of negative impact to children -- our future. These problems over time magnify and create a disproportionately negative impact on our poorest and most vulnerable when they don’t have access to affordable housing.

Baltimore City Public Housing has already addressed this issue and now does not look at arrests, and has reduced lookback periods to 18 months for misdemeanors and three years for felonies. Montgomery County, Md., New York City and Seattle are creating policies right now to address it. Other states such as Michigan and Hawaii have already addressed lookback periods at the state level, reducing them to 24 months and 12 months respectively.

In July 2020, Delaware created a program to allow re-entry citizens to move into public housing homes with family members. A far cry from 10 years.

Maryland, Wicomico County and municipalities need to review this problem and create ordinances that give re-entry citizens fair access to affordable housing for complete families. As a community, we must assure that everyone matters by making policy changes, not suggestions cloaked as “discretion.”

When will our country begin to heal the wounds of mass incarceration and strengthen families? We can start with rebuilding our communities with access to affordable housing. We can start with conversations among all stakeholders, including criminal justice and housing departments at the county and state level, for example.

There will be an upside to offering access to affordable housing for more families. The long-term goals include children being raised by more than one adult with more financial stability. In turn, this results in less reliance on government programs. Families with stable homes raise children with better educational achievement in K-12.

With more housing opportunities, more families could become homeowners, improving and beautifying our cities and neighborhoods with every dollar they invest in their own property.

As a community, can’t we work toward creating hope for all people, where everyone has a fair shot at accessing housing?  Do you want more homeless in your community as prison populations are released due to Covid-19 or released due to overall criminal reform?

Now that you know the scope of the problem, where do we go from here?

What do you want to do to help elevate the conversation to remove the secret barriers to affordable housing? Is it time to seriously talk about extending equal housing opportunity protections to re-entry citizens?

Molly Hilligoss is Executive Director of Habitat For Humanity of Wicomico County.

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