PHA policies and procedures regarding tenant screening can be a significant obstacle for many chronically homeless people with disabilities. For most PHAs, the standard approach to tenant screening is to deny housing assistance to applicants with outstanding debt owed to the PHA or prior arrests or convictions. When attempting to serve homeless people, PHAs and their community partners may use flexible funding to pay debts owed to the PHA that would be an obstacle to eligibility for housing assistance.
Criminal backgrounds create a more challenging obstacle. Under federal law, PHAs are required to deny housing to people who are subject to lifetime registration under a state sex offender registration program, or convicted of manufacturing methamphetamines on the premises of federally assisted housing. Except in these two cases of permanent prohibitions to admission, PHAs may consider factors that suggest favorable future conduct. For example, PHAs must deny housing to applicants who have been evicted from federally assisted housing as a result of drug-related criminal activity within the last 3 years unless the PHA determines that the evicted household member has successfully completed rehabilitation or the circumstances leading to the eviction no longer exist (e.g., the offending household member has died or is imprisoned). In addition, the PHA may deny housing to current drug abusers and to those who abuse alcohol, or whose pattern of alcohol abuse would create a threat to the health or safety of the development or the right of other residents to peacefully enjoy the premises. Here too, the PHA may consider mitigating circumstances in determining a final course of action. When PHAs are engaged in collaborative efforts to provide supportive housing opportunities to chronically homeless people, the availability of supportive services is often considered as a mitigating factor.
The law gives substantial flexibility to PHAs and housing providers to adopt local policies regarding criminal backgrounds. Some PHAs and providers of other federally subsidized housing have adopted policies that are more restrictive than the requirements of federal law, creating significant obstacles to housing for many chronically homeless people. While some PHAs have very restrictive policies, others have modified their policies and procedures to reduce barriers for people returning from jails and prisons. These modified (or low-barrier) policies may apply only to particular housing projects that use project-based vouchers or to tenant-based vouchers that are available through a limited preference and are connected to programs that offer supportive services.
Some PHAs may initially deny applications for housing based on criminal backgrounds for all households, but have appeal procedures that allow for a case-by- case review of circumstances, including evidence of rehabilitation. This is another approach through which PHAs and supportive service-providers may work together to make it possible to use vouchers for homeless people who need PSH.
The rules may differ for special programs that offer vouchers targeted to specific special needs populations such as homeless veterans (HUD-VASH) and homeless people with disabilities (Shelter Plus Care). Under federal law, vouchers made available through the HUD-VASH program may be provided to veterans with criminal backgrounds as long as they are not subject to lifetime registration as sex offenders. Many PHAs may have also adopted low-barrier rules or procedures in their implementation of Shelter Plus Care.
In June 2011, the Secretary of HUD sent a letter to all PHA executive directors, describing the laws and policies regarding screening potential tenants based on criminal activity. While the focus of this letter was primarily on ex-offenders seeking to reunify with family members living in public housing or receiving voucher assistance, the encouragement to offer a second chance to allow ex-offenders a place to live may provide a helpful signal to PHAs regarding more-flexible policies that reduce barriers for homeless people.14 The Federal Interagency Reentry Council also published a Myth Buster fact sheet clarifying federal policies regarding eligibility for housing assistance for people who have been convicted of a crime.15