Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA), Ranking Member of the House Financial Services Committee, introduced the “Fair Chance at Housing Act of 2016” (H.R. 5085) that would take significant steps towards ensuring people with criminal records have meaningful access to housing.

The bill would require public housing agencies (PHAs) and other owners of HUD- and USDA-assisted housing to provide applicants and current tenants with an individualized review that looks at the totality of their circumstances before making a decision based on criminal records. When screening or deciding whether to evict a tenant, housing providers would be limited in considering criminal activity that threatens the health, safety or right of peaceful enjoyment of others or violent activity that happens off the premises and poses future harm to others living in or working at the property.

The bill would also require housing providers to provide written notice of their screening policies and the reason why an applicant was denied housing. Currently, many housing providers do not post their policies in readily accessible locations, and some fail to disclose what specifically about a criminal record caused an applicant to be screened out.

Housing providers would be unable to deny admission to applicants based solely on certain situations, such as an eviction for past criminal activity or a juvenile adjudication or conviction, and they would be prohibited from conducting drug or alcohol testing of applicants or tenants without reason for suspicion. PHAs would no longer be able to rescreen families who are already receiving some form of housing assistance. The bill would allow HUD to provide increased administrative fees to those PHAs that serve people who have exited jails or prisons.

“The current harsh policies for housing assistance are a direct result of the harmful and ineffective legacies of the War on Drugs and the War on Crime,” Ms. Waters said. “Far too many Americans now carry a criminal record that limits their opportunities throughout life, despite the fact that they have successfully rehabilitated or taken great strides to change their lives. In particular, it has restricted access to housing assistance, which is a critical part of the rehabilitation and reentry process. The reforms in this bill will help ex-offenders get back on their feet, while ensuring that public housing authorities and owners maintain the authority to ensure the safety of other residents.”

Ms. Waters circulated a “dear colleague” letter asking her fellow representatives to support the bill. She wrote, “This bill is a smarter and safer approach to both fair housing and public safety. It would help reduce recidivism and prevent homelessness by helping ex-offenders find stable housing upon exiting a jail or prison, and by ensuring that individuals and households currently receiving federal housing assistance are not unfairly evicted.” So far, the bill has six cosponsors: Representatives Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Danny Davis (D-IL), Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ), Sanford Bishop (D-GA), Gwen Moore (D-WI), and Grace Napolitano (D-CA).

“We applaud Representative Waters for her bold actions in addressing the housing barriers faced by people with criminal records,” said NLIHC President and CEO Diane Yentel. “This bill will ensure that people who have served their time will have an opportunity to rejoin their families and communities and make the most of their second chance.”

Other groups that support the bill include the National Fair Housing Alliance, CSH, the National Housing Law Project, the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, the National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund, the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities Housing Task Force, the Arc of the United States, and the National Disability Rights Network.