By Andrea Lowe, J.D. ’16
On Saturday, November 21st, students from the Tenant Advocacy Project (TAP) presented information about access to public and subsidized housing, and how criminal history can affect access to these resources, to members of Haley House’s Transitional Employment Program (TEP).
Our goal was to disseminate useful information about access to housing resources, based on the laws and regulations governing Massachusetts public housing, as well as anecdotes and patterns that we have observed while practicing in this area. Public Housing Authorities have substantial discretion in most cases of denying applications, particularly if a criminal history is involved. By connecting the law to what we have seen in our clinical practice, in terms of what arguments are most effective, and how to present evidence of mitigating or changed circumstances, our presentation aimed to provide the TEP participants with the resources to make their cases most effectively.
However, because of other issues relevant to TEP members, we decided not to focus the presentation exclusively on the effect of a criminal background on housing access. We presented information on priority status and on Reasonable Accommodation (RA), so that TEP participants who might have physical or mental health impairments may be able to access housing fairly. We also discussed appealing a denial of housing, RA, or priority. Appeals can be confusing and onerous, and applicants often do not believe that the process would be of help. TAP sees many initial decisions overturned at the appeal stage, so we encouraged all of the participants to exercise their appeal rights. Especially in the case of a criminal history, an appeal hearing would give the individual a chance to tell his/her story, provide mitigating evidence, and provide any recommendation letters or other corroborating evidence of how his/her life has changed after incarceration.
The event itself was fantastic: the TEP participants were extremely engaged in the presentation, and asked challenging questions. It seemed from their questions and comments that they found the information we provided to be helpful in their housing searches going forward.
While TAP focuses on representing tenants at administrative proceedings, typically application denials, Section 8 terminations, or public housing evictions, participating in outreach events like this one is central to our mission of fair access to public and subsidized housing. Because TAP is limited in the amount of cases it can take, many tenants must go into these hearings unrepresented, without the advantages of knowing how to best make their case, or do not appeal at all. While the provision of this information is not a substitute for having a lawyer or advocate, we hope that these outreach events will empower applicants and tenants, enabling them to know their legal rights, and effectively advocate for themselves if they cannot get the help of TAP or another legal services provider.