In 2013, the Housing Authority of New Orleans committed to breaking down barriers to affordable housing for people with criminal records.

The authority, then under control of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, established a policy that added nuance to how criminal convictions factored into approvals for subsidized housing, a stance since touted as “one of the nation’s most progressive criminal background screening policies.” 

At the time, the authority acknowledged the collateral consequences faced disproportionately by Black men caught up in the criminal justice system, as well as HANO’s own “responsibility to give men and women with criminal histories the opportunity to rejoin their families and communities as productive members.”

Before the policy shift, applicants for housing assistance could be denied if they or a member of their household had been arrested or convicted of a crime in the past seven years; the new policy, which wasn’t fully developed until 2016, altered the agency’s approach for admissions to public housing sites and the Housing Choice Voucher, or Section 8, program.

A decade after the agency first announced the policy, some advocates who pushed for the changes are frustrated that the agency has been slow to extend it to planned HANO housing developments as the agency moves forward on plans to redevelop its scattered sites — small, single-building, affordable housing developments located throughout the city — and add hundreds of new affordable units. The advocates point to a similar, but more expansive policy instituted two years ago by the Louisiana Housing Corporation as an indication that the New Orleans agency is falling behind.

Current operators of HANO developments say they are following the new policy. But the concern among housing advocates is that loopholes in the policy — which appears to exclude managers of certain types of units likely to be included in future scattered site developments — could allow third-party operators to skirt it. 

The housing authority once owned more than 1,300 housing units in scattered site properties as part of an initiative to disperse low-income families away from large public housing developments. 

Due to deterioration buildings and damage from Hurricane Katrina, HANO was left with 85 operating scattered sites and another 230 vacant properties by 2015. The agency is now in the process of working with private developers to reimagine the abandoned sites as mixed-income, privately run properties — part of a once-hotly debated strategy to bolster the city’s affordable housing stock, to integrate low-income housing across neighborhoods and to build revenue streams.

The strategy is similar to the controversial one HANO employed with the city’s large public housing developments in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The city’s former major public housing developments were demolished and replaced with sprawling, mixed-income neighborhoods — offering a mix of public housing units, market-rate units and voucher-based subsidized units — managed by third parties.  

HANO recently strengthened the policy to clarify that it applies to all public housing units under outside management, though it still appears to exclude contractors operating units subsidized by project-based vouchers. Among the scattered sites the agency has aimed to redevelop in the last eight years are a multistory building in Bywater and other units Uptown, which could include a number of voucher units. 

Whether the authority requires the new background check process at its scattered sites will have consequences, given the large number of people in New Orleans and Louisiana with criminal records, said Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center. And failing to broaden the policy could also violate the federal Fair Housing Act, Hill added, echoing a 2016 warning from HUD that blanket policies barring those with criminal records could be considered a form of illegal dis

The affordable housing group has repeatedly asked the authority in recent years to expand the policy to include any mixed-income developments being planned on HANO-owned land or those financed with federal voucher subsidies

“It is baffling and has continued to be baffling as to why HANO continues to refuse to apply their existing policy to new developments that might come online,” Hill said.

The housing authority has offered non-committal responses to the group in prior years, noting it is conducting detailed reviews of its contracts with third-party development operators that will inform any next steps.

Suzanne Whitaker, HANO’s director of communications, said in a statement that the housing authority had not had any conversations with the fair housing group over the issue: “We look forward to having conversations with them regarding issues such as this.”

Procedures require panel review of applicants

In 2016, after HUD returned HANO to local control, the agency’s board proceeded to establish procedures that require a three-person panel to individually review applications from individuals convicted of certain crimes within certain time periods that suggest community safety risks. People with convictions not outlined in the procedures are otherwise eligible. Federal law does still require the authority to bar applicants on a lifetime sex offender registry and those convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine on public housing premises.

Those procedures were widely praised, but left critics concerned that HANO was deferring to private management companies grandfathered in due to existing contracts. HANO amended the policy in 2022 to require compliance for third-party operators signing contracts beginning Oct. 1 of last year. 

But that amendment applied only to operators that manage public housing. The agency’s plans for scattered site redevelopments  and the agency says that the policy is now mandatory for all such site managers. 

Most of the authority’s 2,000 existing public housing units are operated by third-party contractors. And most of the third-party operators also affirmed that they are following the policy. Representatives of the Guste Homes Residential Management Corporation, which operates HANO’s Guste Homes; Columbia Residential, which operates Columbia Parc at the site of the former St. Bernard public housing complex; HRI Management, which operates River Garden at the former St. Thomas public housing complex and Bienville Basin at the former Iberville public housing complex; and the Michaels Organization, which operates The Estates at the former Desire public housing complex told Verite this month they apply HANO’s policy to public housing units they manage across the city.

Dolfinette Martin, one of three members of HANO’s criminal-background review panel — responsible for the agency’s small number of remaining direct-run public housing units, as well as admissions to the Section 8 program — said in an interview that the panel has not convened since 2021. Martin noted that in the four years before then, the HANO panel denied only one applicant from public housing.

Martin, who originally pushed for the policy back in 2013 after her own release from prison, now heads housing programming at the advocacy group Operation Restoration, which focuses on women and girls impacted by incarceration. 

Martin also said she has previously asked the agency for data on the review process and its outcomes and received no response. HANO’s procedures require the agency to publish reports every six months providing such data, and third-party site managers are also supposed to share their information with HANO. Whitaker said the housing authority maintains, but does not publish, the data.

Along with public housing, the policy applies to applicants seeking one of the authority’s 18,000 or so Housing Choice, or Section 8, vouchers, which provide rental subsidies for low-income tenants in privately owned homes. However, it doesn’t bar Section 8 landlords from implementing their own screening procedures of potential tenants, Hill noted.

The housing authority said landlords onboarding HANO’s Section 8 program are required to follow the Fair Housing Act, and that it also offers quarterly meetings for landlords to discuss tenant and landlord law with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, a free legal aid group.

HANO’s administrative plan for the program states that the agency doesn’t provide the criminal history of potential tenants to landlords, though it notes that landlords can “apply their customary screening criteria, without regard to HANO’s Criminal Background Policy” when backgrounding family members who tenants want to add to their leases.

Louisiana Home Corporation, the state’s housing finance agency, eclipsed HANO in implementing its own inclusive screening policy in 2021. LHC’s policy requires any property owners and managers receiving low-income housing tax credits, program funds or other subsidies from the agency to prove compliance.

The LHC cited 2016 HUD guidance warning landlords that blanket policies against renting to people with criminal records could violate anti-discrimination provisions in the Fair Housing Act, given the disproportionate impact of the criminal legal system on Black and Hispanic people. 

Last summer, the federal agency also offered best practices for housing providers to align screening procedures with the federal law — including perhaps striking criminal history from screening criteria altogether, given that it isn’t an accurate predictor of housing success.

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Michelle previously worked for The Associated Press in South Carolina and was an inaugural corps member with the Report for America initiative. She also covered statewide criminal justice issues for Mississippi...