PROVIDENCE — People trying to get federally subsidized housing in Rhode Island face rules around criminal records, alcohol use, tenant histories, and credit that go well beyond the guidelines laid out in federal law.
That’s according to a study by Boston University School of Social Work doctoral candidate Megan Smith and associate professor Thomas Byrne, published earlier this year in the journal Housing Policy Debate and titled “Locked Out: The Systematic Exclusion of Poor Renters From Federally Subsidized Housing.”
“We get this pervasive sense that the very resource that’s meant to help people, housing, is the very thing they’re being denied and excluded from based on factors directly relating to their poverty and their homelessness,” Smith said.
These sorts of barriers exist nationally, but Smith and Byrne were able to see how it played out in one bounded geographical area: Rhode Island. What they found was stark.
Smith is also a street outreach worker for homeless people in Rhode Island, working with House of Hope. The homelessness crisis is soaring in Rhode Island right now, Smith said. She sees it when she talks to people who are living on the streets: Time and again, people are denied housing because of factors that aren’t actually prohibitions under federal rules.
To get some data behind that notion, Smith and Byrne’s team looked at 293 federally subsidized housing providers in Rhode Island. They include project-based rental assistance developments, which are private developments that receive federal subsidies, and public housing authorities.
The BU team called all of them, usually multiple times, to try to get their admission policies. They got responses for developments covering only 41 percent of the units in the state.
“It was eye-opening to me, and probably not for Megan, just how hostile these people were to sharing these documents that are supposed to be public documents,” Byrne said. “You’d get hung up on when you’d ask for their admissions policies.”
Under US Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines, there are only four automatic exclusions from federally subsidized housing: If someone is on the lifetime sex offender registry; if they have an eviction in the last three years from federally assisted housing for drug-related criminal activity; if they currently use illegal drugs; or if they have a pattern of illegal drug use that interferes with other residents.
The developments themselves, meanwhile, are allowed to impose broader criteria on applicants. And impose they do: Almost all looked at applicants’ criminal records going beyond the one year that HUD recommends. Some broadened the restrictions on people who were evicted because of drugs to include evictions related to alcohol. The vast majority, more than 90 percent, considered rental payment history, the study said. A quarter of the policies used the broad word “arrest,” while 70 percent considered some language around mitigating factors.
The types of crimes were also much broader than federal guidelines of certain sex offenses or drug crimes leading to evictions: Fraud, public drinking, prostitution, even terrorism.
The reason these developers put these criteria in place is presumably due to the safety of tenants and the financial viability of the developments. The authors say it’s probably a “holdover” from the policies of the 1990s that sought to make public housing more safe by evicting people involved in violent crime and drug dealing.
But they have real consequences for people. And the fact that they’re such a vague patchwork even when you can get your hands on the policies leaves people uncertain about whether they qualify for help, Smith and Byrne said. Smith said she often helps people who are appealing denials, like someone who had a possession charge two years ago and is now in treatment. They’re often messier than that. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose.
“It doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of internal consistency,” Smith said.
Only 25 percent of people eligible for subsidized housing actually get it, according to a 2017 study they cite. That’s bound up in problems with housing supply, but these restrictions don’t help.
“There might be good reasons to impose some of these things for the benefit of potential other tenants,” Byrne said, “but some of this stuff is really outrageous, and it’s hard to see how it benefits anybody, other than to keep people out.”