The passage of the Clean Slate Act, which works to automatically seal people’s conviction records after a certain time period, earlier this year was just the tip of the iceberg for criminal justice advocates. They are determined to fight discrimination against formerly incarcerated New Yorkers on all fronts—especially housing.
The Fair Chance for Housing Campaign supports a city council bill that would end housing discrimination against people with convictions in New York City. They gathered at Foley Square in Manhattan last Wed with local electeds.
Ward was deeply involved in illegal activities as a teen and was sentenced to 24 years in prison by age 20. He has been out for the last 14 and a half years, he said. Since then, he has achieved numerous accolades, a prestigious position, a high level of education, and taught at institutions.
“I’m someone who came out, did the right thing, contributes to our community, and yet, I didn’t put my name on the housing application that my wife applied for because I knew that if I did, they probably wouldn’t allow me to live there,” he said, about a lease situation with his family in 2016. “Because I have a conviction record.”
His organization runs several supportive and transitional housing locations around the city for formerly incarcerated people, including Long Island City, Harlem, and the Bronx. They have extensive rehabilitative services for people once they’ve been released, emergency housing for those with nowhere to go, and reintegration plans for people willing to commit to programming. “Central to the work is believing in people’s capacity to change and transform their lives,” said Ward.
Ward believes that once someone does the work, they deserve a fair shot at life, and a conviction history shouldn’t deter that.
From 1980 to 2021, there were about “6.6 million New York criminal cases impacting nearly 2.2 million people that ended in a conviction,” said research collected by the Data Collaborative for Justice (DCJ). New York City accounted for 53% of these convictions in 1980. The rate has steadily decreased to 33% by 2019, the report says. The drop-off was significant in 2020 and 2021.
From 1985 to 2021, 42% of convictions involved Black people, yet they made up 15% of the state’s population in 2019. New York City has a conviction rate that is 5.7 times higher for Black people than white people, the DCJ concluded.
Ward added that a high percentage of Black and brown people released from state prisons are entering city shelters because of these convictions and not qualifying for housing. He said the shelter system here is “unfit” and “uninhabitable” because of unaddressed conditions. “This issue behind Fair Chance for Housing is also a racial justice issue, and that’s why it’s so fundamentally important,” he said.
Kandra Clark, vice president of policy and strategy with Exodus Transitional Community, runs a supportive housing program for formerly incarcerated people similar to Fortune Society. “It is so sad to see how many New Yorkers face housing discrimination daily. People with conviction histories are perpetually punished, making their families more likely to experience intergenerational homelessness,” said Clark in a statement. “We must break this cycle of poverty and provide families the opportunity to flourish in their homes and communities.”
Clark said that Fair Chance is just “smart legislation” that should be passed immediately. Plenty of electeds in the city and state agree.
East Harlem’s Assemblymember Eddie Gibbs is the first formerly incarcerated person elected to the state assembly and was a huge proponent of getting Clean Slate passed at the tail end of the June legislative session. He said, in a statement, he wholeheartedly supports the Fair Chance Housing Act and that it would allow people with conviction histories to access stable housing.
“An individual’s conviction history doesn’t solely affect them. It can affect their family as well and lead to a never-ending cycle of instability,” said Gibbs.
Councilmember Carmen De La Rosa said someone’s past should not determine whether or not they live in dignified and affordable housing. “The Fair Chance for Housing Act alleviates an already difficult process while working towards our goal of securing permanent housing for all New Yorkers, especially for the disproportionate numbers of formerly incarcerated people of color,” she said in a statement.
Ward concedes that there may need to be provisions in the bill, similar to those in Clean Slate when it comes to certain sexual or egregious conviction records, in order to get it passed.
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about politics for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visitinghttps://bit.ly/amnews1.