Over the past two decades, the U.S. has been combating one crisis after another; from mass incarceration, to staving off economic disaster, to widespread racialized inequities, to rising fatal overdose rates, to the COVID-19 pandemic. Amidst all this, there is also an ongoing housing crisis, and the closest we have come to addressing it was an eviction moratorium instituted at the height of the pandemic in 2020. This, however, only forestalled the inevitable for millions of low-income families, disproportionately of color, without addressing any of the root causes of housing insecurity. Housing promotes stability in people’s lives, and it is integral to also ensuring health equity, economic growth, quality education, civil rights, and more. While many people in our country understand this and believe that making sure everyone has a safe, decent, affordable place to live should be a national priority, millions of Americans struggle to access affordable housing.

In December 2021, the Black Harm Reduction Network hosted a virtual conference with over 230 harm reduction, criminal legal system, and health care reform advocates and stakeholders. A pre-survey completed by registrants revealed that housing was one of the top issues they cared about. Advocates working to reform the criminal legal system and improve health care access, and harm reductionists who work to address the negative consequences of drug use, are all acutely aware of the essentiality of affordable housing, leading to the Black Harm Reduction Network identifying access to housing as a top priority.

A Closer Look at the Affordable Housing Crisis

For decades, millions of extremely low-income households (those with incomes at or below the poverty line or 30% of the area median income, whichever is greater) have been living in unstable and/or unaffordable housing and routinely face the threat of eviction. For every 100 extremely low-income renter households, there are only 36 affordable rental homes available. The lack of affordable housing is due in part, and continues to be exacerbated by, the chronic underfunding of federal housing assistance. The shortage of affordable rental homes leaves many low-income households severely cost-burdened – meaning they spend more than 50% of their income on housing, leaving little to address other essential expenses such as medicine and food. Moreover, many are priced out completely, leading to millions in our nation facing homelessness each year.

Access to affordable housing is particularly important for those who are returning home from incarceration. Reliable and secure housing can significantly increase the likelihood that a person reentering society will be able to connect with their family and other supportive social networks, find and retain employment, and avoid additional involvement in the criminal legal system. Yet, formerly incarcerated people face a multitude of housing barriers, which ultimately leads to them being 10 times more likely than the general public to experience homelessness. Hundreds of federal, state, and local laws and regulations either create mandatory housing restrictions or promote exclusionary practices. Moreover, under the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) narrow definition of “chronically homeless,” people who were incarcerated for more than 90 days and are reentering society are not considered “homeless” and are therefore often restricted from accessing shelters and ineligible for other emergency housing assistance (in this piece, when the term “homeless” is used, it refers to a state of being, rather than calling people “the homeless” our preferred terminology at LAC is unhoused or housing insecure).

Additionally, it is common practice for municipalities to have crime-free rental housing ordinances or voluntary programs that actively discourage private landlords from providing housing to justice-involved individuals. Concurrently, the criminalization of homelessness, including arresting individuals for sleeping outside or asking for money or food, means many people who are unhoused are at one point or another incarcerated. National research indicates that up to 15% of incarcerated people experience homelessness in the year prior to going to . Such discrimination has a disparate racial impact, as Black and brown communities are over-criminalized and targeted by law enforcement resulting in a greater percentage of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) having experienced arrest and incarceration and ultimately being more likely to experience these additional barriers to accessing housing.

There is a similar connection between the lack of affordable housing, homelessness, and the criminalization of drug use. Federal statutory requirements place time-limited bans on living in housing that is funded by HUD if someone has experienced a past eviction due to drug-related activities. Federal policies also enable housing agencies to deny housing to people with histories of drug use or who are considered ‘at risk’ of engaging in illegal drug use. Additionally,  the stress and dangers of living on the street can cause people to develop psychiatric conditions, which can also lead people to use substances as a way of trying to cope. In another catch-22, those who have substance use disorders and are unhoused often find it challenging to effectively address their substance use without safe and stable housing.

The lack of affordable housing and federal housing assistance, coupled with discrimination in housing based on past justice system-involvement or drug use, contribute to “churning,” a term used to describe how unhoused people  cycle between living on the streets, getting arrested and sent to jail, spending time in shelters upon release, being admitted to a hospital or rehabilitation facility, just to end up being released and living on the streets again. This cycle, which has also been referred to as the institutional circuit, clearly recognizes the connection between criminalization of mental health conditions and substance use disorders, the lack of affordable, transitional and supportive housing options, and homelessness.

Recommendations, Promising Policy Solutions, and Advocacy Opportunities

This year, the Biden Administration released guidance and launched initiatives aimed at improving the lives of those in need of affordable housing, people with substance use disorders, and those with conviction records. The Legal Action Center and the Opportunity Starts at Home Campaign commend President Biden for recognizing these issues, however, more funding is needed to support these efforts, and all proposed solutions must acknowledge the importance of housing in promoting successful recovery and reentry.

Below is a list of legislative proposals Congress should enact to increase and improve the availability of affordable housing.

Increase Funding for Rental Assistance/ Housing Choice Vouchers (HCVs)

  • Housing Choice Vouchers (HCVs) are a well-known type of rental assistance that help people in the lowest income brackets afford housing in the private market by paying landlords the difference between what a household can afford to pay and the full cost of rent. HCVs are a proven, evidence-based model for ensuring housing stability and eliminating homelessness. Congress should fully fund HCVs to ensure that every household that qualifies for a voucher actually receives and can utilize it.

Expand Investments in the National Housing Trust Fund (HTF)

  • In places where affordable housing is scarce, increasing the supply must be a top priority. By expanding the HTF Congress would increase the already dedicated funding stream to efficiently build, rehabilitate, preserve, and operate rental housing for people with low incomes.

Support Permanent Emergency Assistance

  • Congress should create a permanent emergency assistance fund for households utilizing affordable housing. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need to be able to address unexpected situations, and instituting an emergency fund could help families overcome unforeseen setbacks and avoid spiraling into housing instability by providing flexible, short-term assistance. For many extremely low-income renters, the cost of a broken-down car or medical bill can make the difference between being housed and facing eviction.

Invest in Housing First Models

  • Congress should also prioritize the funding, expansion, and implementation of Housing First models, which prioritize getting people into stable housing first and then connecting them to other supportive services, opposed to models where sobriety, for example, is a prerequisite to securing housing. Housing First is a proven model that effectively reduces the “churning” cycle and boasts the additional benefit of providing community cost savings.

Create and Invest in Reentry Housing Programs and Initiatives

  • To support successful reentry of formerly incarcerated people to our shared communities, jurisdictions should be incentivized to set aside publicly-funded housing, coupled with supportive services, for people with arrest and conviction records and their families. Offering housing services to people upon reentry is proven to help reduce recidivism.

Promising Examples of Increasing Access to Housing for Justice-Involved Populations

The Opening Doors initiative led by the Vera Institute in partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance is an example of an innovative strategy to connect individuals reentering the community to safe and secure housing. This initiative has led to the creation of similar reentry programs at various public housing authorities (PHAs), and is actively increasing access to public housing for people with conviction histories.

Some states have even passed legislation to change their PHAs’ policies to better align with this strategy. Illinois is one such state – in 2021, the state legislature passed the Public Housing Access Bill, which removed some of the most notable barriers to public housing for residents with conviction histories. The bill also applied a common set of admissions criteria statewide and limited the length of the criminal background check look back period to just six months from the date of application (HUD exclusions regarding people who use drugs and those with sex offenses remain). New Jersey is another state that took a bold step forward when they passed the Fair Chance in Housing Act (FCHA) last June. This bill bars housing providers from asking about criminal histories on housing applications in most instances.

We also recommend supporting local nonprofits and reentry providers working to address this issue. The Legal Action Center’s No Health = No Justice partners RestoreHER in Georgia and Lifelines to Success in Tennessee are just two examples of the many community-based organizations that have sought to address the housing discrimination faced by justice-involved populations by making affordable homes available to them, both to rent and to own.

While the Biden Administration and state and local jurisdictions across the U.S. continue to express concerns about rising overdose deaths, meeting the needs of individuals with severe mental illness, extreme poverty rates, the precarity of those returning home from incarceration, and the housing crisis, these issues must serve as more than just talking points. They must be backed by funding to create real change. If we as a country truly believe in justice for all, then we must ensure stable, affordable housing for all, including those with conviction and/or substance use histories.

This article was written in collaboration with the Legal Action Center, a member of the campaign’s Roundtable. The Roundtable enables the campaign to raise awareness about the intersections of housing and other sectors, continually expand its multi-sector network, and reach a diverse array of new stakeholders.