Reflections on Chicago’s Public Housing Reentry Program

Second chances in the second city: Public housing and prisoner reentry in Chicago
Madeleine Hamlin
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Housing instability can both cause and result from contact with the criminal justice system. Further, the public housing and criminal justice systems interact in complex ways. Criminal justice institutions such as jails and law enforcement agencies are frequently the dominant state institutions in low-income urban neighborhoods where public housing developments are located.  And although not formally part of the prison system, public housing historically employed surveillance practices that have supported a pervasive “carceral continuum,” maintaining a cycle of people between prisons and disinvested urban neighborhoods. Recent efforts have attempted to break that continuum by helping people exiting prisons find stable housing, which is often especially difficult for them to secure.

The Chicago Housing Authority launched one such effort in 2014: a pilot program to allow 50 people with criminal records to move into public housing or receive vouchers. Based on interviews with stakeholders involved in the pilot, this study examines the goals and limitations of the program and why, after two years, it still had not filled the 50 slots, despite the vast, demonstrated need for housing among returning citizens.

Key findings
  • Fear of failure among policymakers, particularly that pilot program participants would commit violent crimes and further the stigma that people with criminal records are dangerous, prevented the program from being more widely adopted and fully integrating returning residents into public housing.
  • Housing assistance had positive benefits for residents, but because the pilot was so small and inherently experimental, it relegated participants to “test cases” instead of normalizing their presence in public housing.
  • Without greater recognition of how the housing and justice systems are intertwined, pilots such as this are insufficient to overcome the challenges faced by residents who are both housing insecure and at risk of or who previously had contact with the carceral state.
  • Despite its shortfalls, the pilot started important conversations between policymakers, advocates, and residents about the rights of returning citizens to access public housing and other public programs.
Policy implications

Limited pilot programs to house returning citizens in public housing obscure the reality that many participants previously lived in public housing and came into contact with the criminal justice system because of a combination of oversurveillance of their neighborhoods and harsh penalties for minor criminal offenses, including eviction by the housing authority. Effectively addressing these issues involves a frank recognition of the relationship between housing and criminal justice systems and how aspects of both negatively affect residents. The author suggests that to overturn harmful legacies, housing authorities should aim for broad inclusion of returning citizens in their housing programs, with as few limitations or screening criteria as possible. This would acknowledge that returning citizens have already served their sentences and do not require further punishment by housing institutions in their home communities.

Photo by James Andrews1/Shutterstock