Your past can haunt you. For people who have been evicted or faced eviction proceedings, damaged credit scores can make it nearly impossible to get past the first steps of applying for housing with most landlords. For people who’ve been incarcerated, the field of housing options is even narrower.
Having just one of those past histories makes finding housing more complex. People who’ve experienced both face a nearly insurmountable challenge to find a place to live. And in New Orleans, the majority of people who’ve had experience in both systems are Black women. A new support network is being formed to help them navigate—and maybe even change—a system that’s been pitted against them.
“What we’re really dealing with is a double compounding of an already difficult situation. African American women are overrepresented in the criminal legal system and also overrepresented in the country’s eviction caseload,” says Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center (LaFHAC), which is leading the effort with support from the Regional Plan Association, one of the country’s leading civic groups. “So when we think about Black women who are more likely to have interactions with both of those systems, it becomes that much harder for Black women to find housing,” Hill says.
Hill’s organization is leading the creation of a support network for Black women in New Orleans and Louisiana who have past evictions, criminal records, or both, to help them identify housing options. The group also plans to lobby the state legislature for better policies and practices around how women with these histories access housing. The work is being supported through the Healthy Regions Planning Exchange, a collaborative of 33 planning and advocacy organizations from 11 regions and coordinated by the Regional Plan Association, with grant support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies.
In Louisiana, the scale of the problem is huge. Hill says that nearly 60% of eviction proceedings in the city of New Orleans are filed against Black women. And even if they end up winning their case, the mere fact that an eviction proceeding was started will remain on their records for years. “Once someone enters into an eviction process there are multitudes of housing opportunities that then just become unavailable to them, sometimes for the rest of their lives,” she says.
Criminal records, even for minor crimes, also become a hindrance, and can lead to more pernicious inequities in housing access. Some landlords have been found to selectively use criminal record checks as a way of justifying not renting to people of color, for example. “Research that the Fair Housing Action Center has done has found that landlords regularly use criminal records screenings as a proxy for racial discrimination,” Hill says.
The result is a lot of Black women who are unable to find decent housing. “The only landlords that will accept these folks are operators of slum properties,” says Hill. “What we’re seeing is African Americans, women in particular, being funneled into these really desperate situations.”
Through the Healthy Regions Planning Exchange program, the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center has partnered with Operation Restoration, a nonprofit in New Orleans led by formerly incarcerated women that supports women and girls affected by incarceration. Together, they plan to urge the Louisiana Housing Corporation, the largest funder of affordable housing in the state, to require that properties funded with tax dollars have a fair and accurate criminal record screening process that’s been developed by experts. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has issued some guidance on this matter, calling for landlords to end blanket bans on renters with any criminal history and not using criminal background checks inconsistently.
The work could have broader implications than helping just Black women with evictions or criminal records, according to the Regional Plan Association’s Vanessa Barrios, senior associate for state programs and advocacy. “We believe that LaFHAC and Operation Restoration’s targeted approach to ensure that formerly incarcerated people and people with eviction records have equal access to housing will not only work toward more universal protections for renters, but also illustrate a more comprehensive housing policy,” she says.
As the pandemic puts more families at risk of eviction, these housing inequities could soon become worse for a much larger group of people, in Louisiana and beyond. Hill estimates that about 140,000 Louisiana families are in danger of eviction, many helmed by Black women. She’s hoping that her organization’s work with Operation Restoration can help change state policies this year to prevent any new evictions from hindering families’ ability to find secure housing for years or decades. Democratic lawmakers in Louisiana have shown a willingness during the pandemic to extend more protections to renters, but with a Republican majority in both the state House and the state Senate, the bill did not survive. The legislature’s next session starts in April, and Hill concedes that it will be a challenge to make all the changes she wants to see.
“The need is great,” Hill says. “If there is any way to restructure or change the way that we screen for criminal involvement or eviction involvement, then we will certainly be opening up housing opportunities to tens of thousands of families across the state.”