Harris, Ocasio-Cortez Push Bill to Help Ex-Cons Get Housing

(CN) – Prominent Democrats Kamala Harris and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez teamed up Wednesday to introduce a public housing reform bill that would help people with criminal records secure federal housing assistance by removing what they call flawed policies of the War on Drugs era.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks at the 25th Essence Festival in New Orleans on July 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The Fair Chance at Housing Act, introduced in both chambers of Congress on Wednesday, aims to reduce criminal recidivism by helping ex-convicts find stable housing and preventing unfair evictions of current federal assistance recipients.

Citing the disproportionate effects on minorities targeted by the policies of the War on Drugs, the 42-page bill would ban blanket “one-strike” and “no-fault” policies, under which an individual or family could be evicted for one instance of criminal activity or because of the actions of guests even without the knowledge of anyone in the household.

The bill would also bar the use of suspicionless drug and alcohol testing by property owners and public housing authorities.

“Too many people become involved in our criminal justice system and serve their time only to return home to face additional barriers to employment, education, and housing,”  Senator Harris said in a statement Wednesday.

The former California attorney general and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate added, “As our country continues working toward much-needed reform of our criminal justice system, I am proud to work with Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez to ensure formerly incarcerated individuals and their families have access to safe and affordable housing as they transition back into their community.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., listens during a House Financial Services Committee hearing with leaders of major banks on April 10, 2019.  (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Representative Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a rising star in the Democratic Party, said Wednesday that the legislation is just one of many steps that need to be taken to fix a broken criminal justice system.

“The denial of basic necessities to formerly incarcerated people does not make our communities safer. Denying housing to those that have been formerly incarcerated increases recidivism,” she said in a statement. “Today we are taking a step to make our communities safer.”

During a hearing before the House Financial Services Committee earlier this year, Ocasio-Cortez pressed Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson to consider reversing the no-fault and one-strike policies.

The bill would require increased standards of evidence to be used by public housing authorities and owners, as well as a “holistic consideration” of all mitigating circumstances when making screening or eviction determinations based on criminal activity.

The review process would be require authorities and owners to consider the severity and nature of the crimes committed, time elapsed, evidence of rehabilitation, any reduction in sentence and other mitigating circumstances.

The legislation would further ensure that tenants who are evicted for criminal activity and applicants who are denied housing based on criminal activity are given adequate written notice of the reasons for the decision, and the opportunity to present mitigating evidence or appeal.

The bill would also authorize $10 million in additional funding for homeless service providers through the Continuum of Care program to serve ex-convicts.

The measure is supported by the NAACP, whose Washington Bureau Director Hilary O. Shelton called the legislation a crucial step toward reducing recidivism by helping ex-offenders find stable housing after leaving jail or prison and by keeping their family free from punishment by association.

“This bill will assist the public housing authorities but, perhaps more importantly, it will help people who have been incarcerated rebuild their lives after they have paid their debt to society,” Shelton said in a statement.

Last month, President Donald Trump signed an executive order establishing the White House Council on Eliminating Barriers to Affordable Housing, and named Carson as its chairperson. The Trump administration has blamed “burdensome government regulations” for high housing costs.

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