For Reentry Success and Beyond, Rental Housing Access Matters

by Veronica Gaitán and Maya Brennan

Decent, stable, and affordable rental housing has the power to improve lives, yet background checks and other systemic barriers reduce housing access and stability for a large part of the population—people who have been arrested or who are reentering communities after incarceration. The number of people who can be shut out of rental housing by criminal background checks and related policies calls for a national and local conversation about evidence-based ways to balance public safety and cohesion goals while supporting people with justice system histories in finding stable housing. Achieving this balance could interrupt cycles of inequity.

Approximately 1 in 3 people in the US has a criminal record, whether it’s an arrest or a conviction. Each year, millions of people are released from US jails and prisons and will return home or find a new place to live. Hundreds of thousands of people on the national sex offender registry face additional rules and practices that limit access to housing beyond the sentencing period.

Landlords, neighborhood groups, and city and county officials make decisions every day that affect where people with prior justice system involvement—who need and deserve a place to call home—can live. Because of racial inequities in housing options and justice system involvement, these decisions have implications for the well-being of black and brown people and communities. Background checks for rental applications, for example, can reduce opportunities for people reentering communities to access stable, quality housing that can be a vital springboard to a better life—with disparate effects on black and brown people’s futures. When considering residential restrictions for people on the sex offender registry, policymakers face a more complex decision than one might imagine. Such restrictions can lead to clustering in marginalized neighborhoods—the very same places where low-income single parents, who face their own barriers to rental access, are likely to live.

Everyone needs a suitable home, including those with prior arrests, prior incarceration, or a history of a sexual offense. Until communities deliver such housing, millions of Americans will struggle to access the stability they need to get back on their feet, and marginalized communities will bear even greater concentrations of the nation’s risks.

Housing barriers facing people who were incarcerated or have criminal records

People who have been incarcerated, convicted, or arrested face critical housing barriers that can impede reentry into society or their mental, physical, or financial stability. They may face significant individual challenges—such as substance abuse, a history of mental or physical health issues, and employability impediments—that call for a combination of housing and supportive services. Criminal background screening can add systemic barriers to housing for anyone with a conviction or arrest history. Until recently, public housing agencies and US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) assistance programs operated under a one-strike rule, barring access to people with any prior conviction or arrest and evicting households if anyone with a criminal background stayed in the unit. Criminal background exclusions—despite HUD’s guidance (PDF) on the fair housing implications of a blanket ban—are omnipresent throughout the country. A 2015 report found that 79 percent of the 712 formerly incarcerated people surveyed were ineligible for or denied housing because of their conviction history.

Most people rely on family or friends for housing following release from incarceration. This is not always a stable option, making employment, sobriety, and improved health status difficult to accomplish. As a result, people with prior convictions or arrests are more likely to experience homelessness and housing insecurity, and formerly incarcerated people are nearly 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public. The rate of homelessness is particularly high among formerly incarcerated people who have been incarcerated more than once, were recently released, are black or Latinx, are women, and/or have histories of mental illness and substance abuse. In turn, being homeless makes these people more likely to return to prison. This revolving door of homelessness is detrimental to people’s outcomes and costs society millions of dollars.

Housing barriers facing people on the sex offender registry

Among people who have been convicted of crimes, people on the sex offender registry perhaps face the most stigmatization and barriers to housing access. A 2015 nationwide survey of reentry professionals (including judges, legislators, mental health advocates, and people who provide law enforcement, corrections, and reentry services) showed 92 percent of respondents reported that finding suitable housing was a considerable barrier for this population.

At least 30 states have laws that prevent people on the sex offender registry from residing within specified distances, usually between 500 and 2,500 feet, from schools, parks, day care centers, or other areas where children typically gather. Little evidence points to the efficacy of these policies. A 2012 study assessing the effects of a 2,500-foot resident restriction ordinance for people convicted of repeat or “egregious” sex crimes in Jacksonville, Florida, determined no significant differences in sex crimes or recidivism in the city after the restriction was enacted—nor any difference in the trend line for sex crimes versus nonsex crimes from the same population. Studies in Minnesota and Baltimore County came to similar conclusions.

These restrictive laws severely limit where people on the sex offender registry can live. Often, areas where those on the registry are permitted to live are farther from jobs and social connections and present a combination of risks for residents’ success. Instead of creating safe communities, residency restrictions may channel people on the registry into neighborhoods with high rates of poverty, unemployment, and single parenthood.

Residency restrictions also contribute to high rates of homelessness among this population. After Miami-Dade County passed an ordinance banning people on the sex offender registry from living within 2,500 feet of areas where children gather, homeless people on the registry formed an encampment in one of the only areas they could legally sleep: under the Julia Tuttle Causeway. The collection of tents became a small village, where probation officers regularly dropped off people on the sex offender registry to live. County lawmakers and officials debated solutions, and the story sparked national attention in 2007. Though the encampment eventually disbanded, it soon relocated outside of Hialeah. In 2018, more than a decade after the story broke, a judge ordered people to leave the newer encampment. With severely limited options, legal services lawyer Jeffrey Hearne predicted that “new encampments will pop up, and this cycle will continue.” This revolving door of homelessness does not support reintegration and imposes costs on society.

Access to quality, stable, and affordable housing allows people to pursue wide-ranging personally meaningful goals and supports strong communities and economies. Housing limitations, meanwhile, exacerbate adversity at the individual and neighborhood level. Policymakers should explore options to begin breaking down the barriers faced by a unique but substantial portion of the population and champion the combination of housing and supports that enable success.


For more research on justice policy and practice at the national, state, and local levels, visit the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center  web page.

Jocelyn Fontaine provided thorough review for this blog post, but all opinions or errors should be attributed to the authors alone.

Photo by WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock