Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks during a television interview after the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019, in Miami.
Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) is introducing a bill Wednesday with freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) that aims to protect people with criminal records from discriminatory policies in federal housing.

According to Sen. Harris’s office, the Fair Chance at Housing Act is designed to cut down on recidivism by helping ex-offenders secure housing and making sure people currently receiving federal housing assistance are not evicted unjustifiably. The main features of the bill include banning “1-strike” policies which empower landlords to evict tenants for a single occurrence of criminal activity, even if it is a minor incident. Former President Bill Clinton first ordered HUD to implement the policy in 1996 in tenant screening and lease agreements, according to The Los Angeles Times.

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As it now stands, an entire family can be evicted based on the actions of one member or a guest of a family member. Alternatively, under Harris and Ocasio-Cortez’s bill, Public Housing Authorities would have to apply a more holistic approach when screening and evicting tenants based on criminal actions. More critically, public housing officials would not be able to deny housing to people with criminal records under the legislation.

Andre Perry, a fellow at the Brookings Institute who specializes in housing equity (and a contributor to The Root), said that any legislation banning the “1-strike” rule will have a positive impact on those trying to bring stability to their lives without the threat of jail or homelessness hanging over their heads.

“Bipartisan passage of the First Step Act in 2018, which created programs that help reduce recidivism, signaled that even a fractured Congress believes that returning citizens deserve a real chance,” Perry told The Root. “I see Harris and AOC’s plan as a next step. However, HUD must change a culture that sees “1-strike” policies among several [other] lease violations as an effective strategy for providing safe housing.”

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The “1-strike” rule was designed to target people selling drugs in public housing. But, like the 1994 Crime Bill, the rule disproportionately hit black and brown people especially hard. A 2004 report by Human Rights Watch criticized the order, saying that it discriminated against the formerly incarcerated.

In May, Ocasio-Cortez asked Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson during a House Financial Services Committee hearing if he would consider a more comprehensive alternative to the “1-strike” rule. He said, “I’m always in favor of more flexibility.”

It is difficult to find data pointing to exactly how many people are denied housing because of “1-strike,” but Human Rights Watch via a Freedom of Information Act request, noted that in 2001 HUD reported “46,657 applicants for conventional, project-based public housing were denied admission in 2002 because of ‘one strike]’ criteria” but that this figure represents “only a fraction of applicants rejected because of their criminal records.”

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In a statement introducing the act, Harris said, “Too many people become involved in our criminal justice system and serve their time only to return home to face additional barriers to employment, education, and housing. As our country continues working toward much-needed reform of our criminal justice system, I am proud to work with Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez to ensure formerly incarcerated individuals and their families have access to safe and affordable housing as they transition back into their communities.”

Ocasio-Cortez added that the act is a good first step to preparing America’s broken criminal justice system.

“The denial of basic necessities to formerly incarcerated people does not make our communities safer,” she said. “Denying housing to those that have been formerly incarcerated increases recidivism. Today we are taking a step to make our communities safer.”

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Additionally, the Fair Chance at Housing Act would:

  • Prohibit the use of suspicionless drug and alcohol testing by owners and Public Housing Authorities;
  • Provide PHAs with additional administrative funding for helping to house ex-offenders through the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program;
  • Authorize $10 million in bonus funding for homeless service providers through the Continuum of Care program to serve ex-offenders.

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A spokesperson from Harris’ Senate office told The Root that she has been working on the bill with Rep. Ocasio-Cortez over the last few months. The California senator has seen her star rise significantly since her showing at the second Democratic debate where she spared with frontrunner Joe Biden over his comments boasting his working relationship with segregationist lawmakers.

The Fair Chance at Housing Act follows Harris’ $100 billion black homeownership plan announced at Essence Fest this weekend.

Perry said that addressing housing discrimination against people who were incarcerated is a small step in the right direction.

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“There’re already not enough affordable housing units available,” he said. “A mistake by an individual should not put an entire family in peril, especially when it ultimately punishes an entire community.”