Interview with Alan Zais, Illinois Reentry Task Force member and Executive Director of the Winnebago County Housing Authority
As much of the country continues to observe stay-at-home orders, some of the most vulnerable members of our communities, including people leaving prisons and jails, continue to struggle with access to safe and stable housing. Housing organizations have sprung into action to create guides that help Public Housing Authorities (PHA) not only reunite returning community members with their friends and families but also provide safe reentry during these unprecedented times. PHAs can take this time to rethink their policies towards people with conviction histories. In this conversation, the Vera Institute of Justice talks to Alan Zais, Illinois Reentry Task Force member and Executive Director of the Winnebago County Housing Authority about what housing authorities can do to help people reentering find safe homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- We know the Illinois Department of Corrections has released 4,000 people in response to the pandemic. How are you and other housing authority directors talking about housing access for people with conviction histories during COVID-19?
The pandemic that affected so many in prison was just one part—those released had the trauma of being exposed and then the trauma of trying to find a place they could afford to live. Housing authorities have needed to be sensitive both to the trauma and the need to provide housing to impact against any like surge in recidivism. Housing authorities also have finite resources and waitlists that can have applicants waiting months to years [to secure housing]. It’s a complex problem, but fortunately, one easy solution is to let released people reunite with their families that are already in housing.
The pandemic is just one piece of this moment. The protests prompted by the deaths of George Floyd and many others have brought the focus to the inequities Black Americans face in criminal charges, convictions, and criminal histories. At this moment, housing authorities can help their communities make these transformational changes to recognize [that] how we currently review criminal histories can be inconsistent from one agency to another and based on a conviction system that is inequitable and disproportionate towards people of color.
All of this has dramatically raised the conversation of housing access for persons with criminal histories to a high profile and urgent discussion.
- Are there any examples of how people can safely open doors to affordable housing during COVID-19 to help people have a place to land once released from prison or jail?
There are many good examples of creative housing authorities finding a way. A quick example is the Housing Authority of Champaign County in Illinois, where CEO David Northern and his board made the dramatic change in June of deciding that they will not consider criminal histories, except for the two HUD mandated exceptions, for deciding admission eligibility.
Our agency had a demonstration program in partnership with the Illinois Housing Development Authority, HUD, New York University Marron Institute and the Illinois Department of Corrections for an early release program. It allows people leaving prison to move into our public housing and Rental Assistance Demonstration Program (a federally funded, project-based voucher program). The outcomes are really positive. The State of Illinois has since funded a statewide voucher demonstration program for over 100 people that we used to increase our program, and they are looking at expanding it again.
Both the Champaign County and Winnebago County housing authorities relied strongly on community partnerships to leverage resources, which is so important as this is a community challenge and a community solution. Both our agencies are also compiling further study and reporting to make it more comfortable for other housing authorities to follow and replicate. Again, these are just two examples—there are many housing authorities with unique programs that prove we can safely open doors, house people, and work to solve this problem.
- There is a shortage of affordable housing in the United States, impacting millions of people and families. Why is providing housing to people with criminal records and/or reuniting them with family living in public housing so crucial?
Access to housing is just a basic human need and right. Not having an address stops the ability to restart a life: someone simply needs an address to get started in school or at a job, to receive a paycheck, just to open a bank account.
Someone with a criminal record is already impacted by poverty, and in many cases received a conviction because they were already too poor to afford the legal representation available to affluent people, which often means that they then “accept” a plea deal—and basically incarcerating people because they are poor. The person leaving incarceration has paid their debt, and the housing authority is not deciding if they properly paid their debt but whether the person can abide by the lease. Further, housing authorities should not make a low-income family have to decide between reuniting with their family member or losing a home they can afford and fall further into poverty. The mission of a housing authority is to house and reunite families, not decide how to divide them.
We should also ask ourselves why are there millions of people impacted? The US leads the world in the number of people incarcerated. Focusing solely on someone’s criminal history makes us just another cog in the cycle, when we can be the agent of change and start the transformation.
- Why is the consideration of mitigating circumstances so important when discussing housing access for people with convictions?
I started housing as a public housing site manager and a Housing Choice Voucher case manager, and I can answer this best with a story of a real person. Early in my career, I had sent a denial letter to an applicant who had a criminal history of illegal drug use, [sex work], loitering, and resisting arrest. The woman came to see me and explained that she had a psychiatric disorder. She self-medicated with drugs and then turned to [sex work] to pay for the drugs. She got help from supportive services to stop the drug abuse, got medical help for her psychiatric condition, and her next step was to get a home. It had been a long journey for her, and she was determined to rebuild her life.
Housing Authorities offer applicants deemed ineligible [to rent] the ability to appeal the decision with an informal hearing and present their mitigating circumstances, which is good, but the process can feel like a bureaucratic wall to the applicant. The hearing officers must be consistently trained to avoid subjective decisions. We must recognize how painful and anxious it can be for someone to share such a vulnerable part of their life. And we have to look further into how we make our decisions—for example, the illegal use of powder cocaine can be portrayed as harmless recreational use by people of affluence. Calling the same drug crack gives it a very different meaning and brings to mind images of “junkies” and crime. How does that influence convictions, and how does it influence us when looking at it in an informal hearing?
Stories, like the one of this woman, can be more powerful than citing policies and reviewing statistics. I found that woman eligible and she turned out to be one of our best residents. But that she had to share such personal pieces of her life, just to have a place she could afford to live, has stayed with me for over 25 years. We must change how we approach reentry because of each person it impacts.