Conference examines consequences of criminal activity eviction from public housing

A recent conference at the University of Chicago brought together legal experts, housing advocates and leaders of faith-based organizations to examine how a little-known federal policy can be used to deny public housing to anyone with an arrest record.

Known to many simply as “one-strike,” the Housing Opportunity Program Extension Act of 1996 gives public housing authorities broad latitude to evict residents for a single arrest—even if the charges are later dropped.

Local housing authorities have implemented the one-strike policy in different ways across the nation. Critics argue many public housing authorities, including the Chicago Housing Authority, have been far too strict: in practice, they say, the one-strike rule has led to the eviction of entire families over offenses as minor as the possession of a small amount of marijuana. In many cases, the eviction process is trigged by someone other than the primary leaseholder, such as a guest, a child or even someone who previously lived at the home.

Loren Lybarger, associate professor at Ohio University and a senior fellow at the Martin Marty Center of the University of Chicago Divinity School, was one of the organizers of the conference. He’s interested in projects that bring policy practitioners, social justice advocates and religious organizations together. He said criminal activity eviction seemed like an issue that could benefit from sustained focus and discussion by a diverse group of experts.

“It’s an issue that has flown under the radar, but has had damaging consequences—perpetuating homelessness and undermining re-entry,” Lybarger explained. “Given the ways in which religious organizations can create pressure for change, it made obvious sense to bring these people together.”

The conference began with an overview of how one-strike functions on the ground. Attorneys from organizations including the Cabrini Green Legal Aid, the Chicago Legal Clinic and the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago discussed their clients’ challenges in navigating the policy.

In some cases, families can only prevent eviction by barring an arrested family member from their home—disrupting marriages and breaking families apart. “Parents are asked to banish their teenage children from their own home,” said Jamie Kalven, founder of the Invisible Institute and a critic of the policy. “A kid caught with a joint in his pocket will trigger this draconian process.”

Ryann Moran of Cabrini Green Legal Aid spent a year fighting the eviction of a client who suffered from a severe mental illness that she said contributed to his arrest and dismissal from public housing.

To her, the punishment seemed out of proportion with the offense—especially when there are more serious challenges facing Chicago Housing Authority residents. “I didn’t understand why we were wasting our resources,” she said. “There are bigger fish to fry than these, and it can be extremely frustrating for our office.”

Many public housing authorities also deny admission to anyone with any criminal history, even if the offenses are minor. Kate Walz of the Sargent Shriver Center on Poverty Law said a report by her organization found public housing authorities around the nation have denied admission on the basis of crimes including jaywalking or littering.

During the afternoon session of the conference, representatives of faith-based organizations discussed how they could partner with other organizations to advocate reform of the policy. By the end of the daylong event, conference attendees developed a plan to meet with the Central Advisory Council, a group representing CHA residents, to discuss next steps.

Lybarger hopes to host future conferences that unite policy experts and faith-based organizations around social justice issues. “[The idea] is to create a space in which people with different kinds of expertise can come together and work through a set of issues—and in the process of doing this, generate new initiatives.”

The conference, “Exiling Chicago’s Ex-Offenders,” was supported by the University’s Office of Spiritual Life, the Invisible Institute, and the Dialogos Initiative. For more information, visit the conference website.