Former inmates ask Housing Authority to soften rules

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Convicted felons and community activists pleaded with the Providence Housing Authority on Thursday to allow people previously convicted of violent crimes and drug-related offenses to qualify for public housing.

The Providence Housing Authority, or PHA, is already considering changing the rules to eliminate automatic denials of people with criminal records and shorten the criminal look-back period, among other changes.

The PHA owns 2,600 apartments in Providence in which low-income families or individuals can be placed. Rent is paid partially by the tenant and subsidized with federal funds from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD).

At the public hearing Thursday, former inmates argued that they’d served their time as required under the law, and should be treated fairly when applying to live in the apartments.

“It seems like folks who go to prison, we are misfits,” said John Prince, who said he was homeless after being released from prison. “We don’t belong…put them in a box, get them out of the way.” He described eating tuna fish out of a can with his hands while he lived on the streets and was denied housing.

“I’m asking this panel to have a heart,” Prince said. “Open your hearts. Give somebody a second chance.”

Edwin Rivera from Providence said he felt the government was “giving up on us.”

“If you people really care, go downtown,” he told the panel. “You’ll see young kids, young people who don’t have nothing, they live under the bridge, in the park…I thought we were supposed to help each other.”

Several dozen people in the audience held signs with phrases like “Fill homes, not shelters & prisons,” and “Stop separating families.” Part of the complaint by the group trying to change the policy, led by the Behind the Walls Committee at Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE), is that families are forced to separate when one member of the family has a criminal record and can’t move in to the public housing unit.

Naomi Chasek-Macfoy testified on behalf of DARE, asking the PHA to change its current rules about people who have been convicted of crimes.

“Formerly incarcerated people already served their time,” Chasek-Macfoy said. “And the PHA should not continue to punish people with records by removing them from their families, one of the most valuable support systems for people with criminal records.”

The PHA is already proposing to change its policy, which currently automatically denies any housing applicant who has a history of violent or drug-related criminal activity within the past ten years. The new proposed policy would consider applicants on a case-by-case basis, and change the look-back period for criminal records to five years. It would also completely stop denying applicants based on misdemeanor crimes, and would soften the policy that bans current drug users from living in the housing. The current rule denies housing to people who have used illegal drugs in the past two years; the new policy would limit it to six months.

In order to get federal funding, HUD requires housing authorities to deny applicants who are lifetime registrants of the sex offender registry and people who have previously been convicted of making methamphetamine in federally assisted housing.

The new proposal still needs to be approved by the full PHA board, and then ultimately by HUD. Even if it passes, Chasek-Macfoy said it doesn’t do enough. The proposed policy would place a deferral on applications from people who have been arrested but not convicted of a crime; the DARE group says that would be akin to denying them housing, and ignoring the fact that arrestees in the U.S. are innocent until proven guilty.

“The PHA is not a court judge,” Chasek-Macfoy said. Her group is also asking for the look-back period to be reduced to three years.

Paul Tavares, the Executive Director of the Providence Housing Authority, said he found the testimony to be compelling and emotional. He acknowledged that the current admissions policy is “archaic” and was formed based on anti-crime sentiment decades ago.

“We’re trying to be progressive,” Tavares said. “We’re also trying to balance the security needs and safety needs of our residents.” He said the comments from the public hearing will be sent to the PHA board, which will vote on the proposed plan. Three of the 11 board members attended the meeting Thursday night.

“At the end of the day, we recognize that housing is important to people who are formerly incarcerated,” Tavares said.