Columbia Housing Authority CEO Explains How New Federal Guidelines Could Affect Residents

Jun 15, 2016

In April the US Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD] released new guidelines about the use of criminal records when denying or terminating a housing agreement.

To find out more about the new guidelines and what it could mean for Columbia residents, Rebecca Smith, from the KBIA Health and Wealth desk, sat down with Phil Steinhaus, the CEO of the Columbia Housing Authority.

Phil Steinhaus is very passionate about his job as the CEO of the Columbia Housing Authority, which oversees 719 housing units and more than a thousand housing choice vouchers – better known as Section 8 housing vouchers. He said the Columbia Housing Authority is about more than just affordable housing.

I think it’s important for the community to know that we work really hard to provide a wide variety of services to our residents - to help children succeed in school and in life, to help families become self sufficient, and to help elderly and disabled live as independently as possible. Our philosophy is people are much more likely to make good choices when there are opportunities to make good choices… So while it's important to provide housing, you also have to compliment it. So you're not warehousing people in poverty, but you're giving them a path out of poverty. 

We talked about the new guidelines issued by HUD in April that have to do with the use of criminal records to deny or terminate housing assistance.

Basically what HUD said with these new guidelines is you cannot deny an application for housing solely based on the report of an arrest. Housing authorities have, in the past, had the discretion to rely on arrest records and use what's called a one-strike law. So they’re talking about not only admission policies, but also policies for terminating housing assistance, and so, the one-strike rule basically said if you were engaged in any violent or drug-related criminal activity, the Housing Authority could terminate your lease and they did not… have to offer any kind of internal hearing process. 

So all HUD really said is you can't just go on a report in the newspaper that somebody got arrested in order to take an adverse action against that person. 

Essentially the new guidelines state that housing assistance cannot be denied or terminated solely because of the report of an arrest or a conviction because this practice negatively impacts minorities and could be discrimination.  

HUD wrote in its new guidelines that housing providers will have to prove that denying housing to someone with a conviction is necessary to “achieve a substantial, legitimate, nondiscriminatory interest.”

According to the HUD guidelines, as many as 100 million U.S. adults – that’s nearly 40 percent of the adult population – have some sort of criminal record.  And, across all ages, African American males are six times more likely to be imprisoned than white males, and Hispanic males are twice as likely as white, Non-Hispanic males.

But Steinhaus said these new guidelines won’t really affect the Columbia Housing Authority [CHA] or the people the serve because the CHA already offers a hearing process for people whose criminal past may affect their housing.

The Columbia Housing Authority has always offered a hearing process to people that we currently serve… We have also have a hearing process for any application that's denied based on criminal history in the past five years

We actually have a two-stage process. The first stage is called the informal hearing process and that's where we sit down with the family that's having their assistance being terminated, and we sit down and find out what what's going on. See if we can find out additional information: Have there been extenuating circumstances? Are there reasons why we would want to necessarily suspend the termination of their housing assistance based on these other circumstances?

Then if the formal hearing officer decides to uphold the termination… that family does have the right to request a second hearing, which is called a formal hearing. That formal hearing is in front of three impartial persons - one is a member of the Columbia Housing Authority's Board of Commissioners, one is a community representative appointed by the CHA board and one is a public housing resident that is appointed by the CHA board.

He said the Housing Authority works to gather more evidence before moving to evict anyone or deny them housing assistance.

The Housing Authority does not deny any entry into either of our housing programs nor do we terminate housing assistance for anyone based solely on an arrest report in the paper. We dig deeper, and we go on a preponderance of evidence, and so we gather additional information about what might have happened before we make our decision. 

Steinhaus explained that if an individual has a conviction within the past five years, the Housing Authority will deny the initial application, an action anyone can appeal.

Then what we will look at is what are the circumstances involving that previous arrest and what's gone on since then… They've had steady work for the last year and a half…They've complied with any terms of probation… They've held down work. They may have gone back to school. They may have taken some other steps showing "Hey. This person has turned the corner and starting to make good decisions in their life.”

A lot of times too, we see people who come in with a sponsor or a supporter… That's the kind of thing we're looking for if an application gets denied, and we coach people on that. [We] say, “Look. Bring that information in, and show us why we should believe that you're not planning on engaging in additional criminal activity in the future."

The new HUD guidelines do still allow housing authorities to deny and terminate housing based on specific crimes - such as violent and drug-related crimes - as long as the refusals aren’t overly broad or based on race. Steinhaus said this is to protect residents and promote a crime-free living environment.

The people living in public housing deserve to be in safe houses. Their kids deserve to live in safe housing. Poor people deserve to live in safe neighborhoods. They want to live in safe neighborhoods.