Criminal Record Expungement: A Q&A with Esther Shin

Affording a decent place to live is challenging for low-income Americans under the best of circumstances. When someone in the household has a criminal record, the challenge is even worse. Regardless of the severity of the crime and even whether there was a conviction, public housing authorities and private landlords often use criminal backgrounds to disqualify people from residency. Since around one in three working age adults has a criminal background, getting a criminal record expunged can lift a major burden to stable housing and employment.

Recognizing that the expungement process is confusing and expensive, the nonprofit human capital development organization Urban Strategies has launched programs to help public housing residents navigate the process. Their expungement programs vary from a more formalized effort in New Orleans to smaller-scale partnerships with Legal Aid offices in 15 other cities.

We spoke to Executive Vice President Esther Shin about how the expungement programs work and the impact they have.

How Housing Matters: Among public housing residents, who typically needs criminal record expungement? How does a family member’s criminal history affect the overall stability of a household?

Esther Shin: Most housing authority [prisoner] re-entry regulations are really confusing and not standardized from city to city, so it’s hard for individuals to know whether or not they’re eligible [to live in public housing]. For felonies, they can’t get on the lease usually. These [individuals] are oftentimes fathers, sometimes mothers, adult grandchildren, or adult children that can’t get on the lease because of an offense on their records. And that’s separate and apart from not being able to get a job.

In terms of housing, the individuals not on the lease—who would want to be on the lease and be an economic contributor to the household—can’t, even though they clearly have an impact on the household. For example, even though he’s not officially on the lease, say a father who’s not living in the unit, that father’s still around. So, he has a significant impact on the success and livelihood of that household. And to not be formally on that lease is extremely disempowering. It reinforces for him that he is not an official member of his own household.

HHM: How did Urban Strategies begin its work on criminal record expungement services?

Shin: One of the first cities where we formally [provided record expungement services] was New Orleans. We worked with the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation and a few others who contributed to a fund specifically for expungement.

Next, we got our case manager, who knew what was going on in the households and would identify individuals who had the challenge, to partner individuals with Legal Aid Services, who did the actual legal work. Most of the dollars went to filing fees, court costs, Legal Aid staff, and averaged about $2,000 a person. Our case managers were there to assist the residents, remind them when they had to go to court, connect them to Legal Aid attorneys, and make sure their paperwork was still being processed.

So, this was really a partnership between the impacted individual, our staff, Legal Aid, and the foundation. Since then we’ve replicated this program in a few other places, assisting 80 or more people each year.

HHM: What kind of stigma do public housing residents with criminal records face in their communities? Beyond their communities?

Shin: It’s not a stigma in the community because it’s not uncommon. It’s more of a stigma in the larger community where you’re not around your neighbors and families you grew up with. People [in public housing] know that so-and-so is not on the lease, but they’re there everyday. It’s more of a frustration that everyone in these developments acknowledges, and most of the time these offenses are drug related.

The real economic challenge is getting work. A lot of our residents are relegated to jobs that may not pay a lot or foster career development. So to have that significant barrier addressed [via expungement] is huge.