Housing Authority considers relaxing felony conviction limits
The Seattle Housing Authority is proposing to relax its criminal background criteria for certain felony convictions to shorten the waiting time for people in need of housing.
The waiting periods for crimes like burglary and homicide, which currently carries a 20-year lapse between release from jail and eligibility, would move to a 12-month system under the proposal. This would put the housing authority inline with standards used by King County Housing Authority, making it easier for applicants to move between the two agencies, said Lisa Cipollone-Wolters, Seattle Housing Authority's director of rental assistance programs.
The proposed changes will increase efficiency and understanding of the rules and regulations by instituting a uniform standard, according to Cipollone-Wolters.
"We see this process as a way to reduce regulatory barriers to housing for people who are homeless, and to further support the efforts of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County," said Cipollone-Wolters. "We think that's a big positive."
"Criminal justice challenges" have been one of the biggest hurdles for homeless people trying to gain access to housing, she said.
"How can they maintain a life off the streets and stay away from factors that may cause them to re-offend if they can't secure housing?" said Cipollone-Wolters at a recent stakeholder meeting to discuss the potential changes.
"People made a mistake they served their time...it doesn't necessarily mean they'd be a bad tenant," she said.
The changes would only apply to the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Section 8 program, in which approved applicants are issued rental vouchers that can be used at various rental properties around the city and county. Landlords are still able to deny applicants based on their own criteria.
"We are not providing an endorsement for anyone but we are trying to at least lower the regulatory barriers...," said Virginia Felton, a spokesperson for the Seattle Housing Authority. "It doesn't mean they are going to get housing. Landlords have the right and responsibility to screen applicants."
Cipollone-Wolters said landlords would be notified of the changes but stressed that it's important for property owners to retain their autonomy when it comes to criminal background checks.
The federal program does mandate the denial of housing vouchers for certain past criminal offenses. Felton said some "show stoppers" include sex crimes, methamphetamine production, a consistent pattern of violent behavior and other serious crimes.
Vouchers would also be denied for a period of three years if a household member has been evicted from federally assisted housing for a drug-related crime.
"We do say in general that we'll also look at other crimes if it seems appropriate," said Felton. "We still reserve the right to do things on a case-by-case basis."
The Seattle Housing Authority Board of Commissioners will review the plan next month.
"We're very hopeful this will go to our board and pass," Cipollone-Wolters said.
Criminal background criteria would not change for the 4,500 units of housing owned and managed by the agency under its low-income public housing program.
Michael Quinn, with the homeless housing advocacy agency Plymouth Housing Group, said it seems contradictory to ask landlords to accept people with more difficult background while the Seattle Housing Authority retains more stringent standards for its own buildings.
Dennis Hall, director of admissions for the public housing program, said the current criteria are working well and would be difficult to change since many resident groups have become invested in screening applicants.
"We are open to change, we certainly are...but the current standards we don't think are unreasonable," said Hall.
Cipollone-Wolters hopes the changes would also increase the amount of vouchers issued by Seattle. An informal survey conducted by the housing authority showed that many people are increasingly not using the housing coupons, letting them expire unused, and that King County has been approving substantially more than Seattle.
The survey found that most people just got tired of looking and were discouraged by the city's tight rental market.
"It will be interesting to see if this increases the successes or not," Cipollone-Wolters said.
Rebekah Scilperoort may be reached at 783.1244 or firstname.lastname@example.org