Seven LSJ students recently presented work at Seattle City Hall about the evaluation of Seattle Housing Authority’s criminal records policies and practices. Two of the audience members were Seattle City Councilmembers Mike O’Brien and Nic Licata.
The presentation on May 30, entitled “The Role of Public Housing in The Re-Entry Process”, was part of their LSJ 489 Honors research class taught by Professor Katherine Beckett. The class is the first time that the LSJ Honors class has been taught as a group project.
“In the past, honors was done as individual research projects but we thought it would be helpful to do a group class where students could collectively work on a research project,” Beckett said.
Beckett said that while students will be able to choose whether they want to do individual research projects or the group class, the class has many advantages.
“I think for students who are open to new topics, it’s a great option because students learn how to work in a group which is a good skill to have,” Beckett said.
Although the topic will vary by who is teaching the class, this year’s students examined whether people with criminal backgrounds were negatively affected by Seattle Housing Authority’s policies and practices.
“An estimated 30 percent of U.S. residents have a criminal background now and this has disproportionately impacted people of color and people of low income,” Beckett said.
As part of the research, the group reviewed 145 denial appeal hearing decisions, 30 eviction notices referencing criminal activity and 46 grievance hearing decisions from Seattle Housing Authority to find out criminal histories were affecting the ability to access public housing.
During the presentation, Anthony Friedman spoke about the problem created by the decline of affordable housing and the increased availability of criminal records.
“We all know it’s very easy to jump online and do a background check on people,” Friedman said. “Moreover, there is a surplus of individuals seeking affordable housing and there simply aren’t enough units for it. This has created somewhat of a perfect storm that has led to the exclusion of ex-offenders from affordable housing programs.”
Brittany Ward spoke about some of the data limitations the group faced, including the inability to contact Seattle Housing Authority and the incomplete data created by the difficulty obtaining eviction notices and initial denial letters.
“This is important because it leaves out a huge spectrum of applicants that we were interested in knowing why they were denied and we think it’s the smaller portion that appealed,” Ward said.
Andrea Greenstein spoke about the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and how the policies of HUD were different from those of Seattle Housing Authority. The policies of SHA are much more restrictive than those of HUD, she said, an indication of the extent of discretion that SHA exercises.
“We’re not sure why these specific and very narrow exclusions have been created by Seattle Housing Authority because they are not required by HUD to have these exclusions,” Greenstein said. “This list was definitely surprising to all of us.”
Alexa Mullarky spoke about the flaws in the appeals process, including how hearing officers are not required to have law degrees and how officers’ decisions were not subject to internal review.
Erika Maskal and Keaton Daucher spoke about the reasons of denial besides criminal history, including insufficient rental history, poor credit and insufficient finances.
Maskal presented specific examples of people who were evicted for vague reasons. She also described two similar cases with different outcomes, one where the person had legal representation and one without.
“This is a problem because the applicant does not know specifically what they are being denied for,” Maskal said.“This shows the decision can be arbitrary and also how strong of an impact representation can have.”
Based on their research, the group found that the Seattle Housing Authority’s use of criminal and rental history was counter to their stated mission and policy objectives.
The group recommended changes to the criminal history and rental history exclusion criteria and urged for greater consideration of mitigating circumstances and a reform of the appeals process.
“I think it’s really important for local policymakers. There are a lot of people in town who are trying to figure out what to do about this problem and how to increase access to housing for ex-offenders,” Beckett said.