HACC affordable housing panel II 1

David Northern Sr., right, CEO of the Housing Authority of Champaign County, speaks during a panel discussion on affordable housing options and criminal background screenings Friday, Oct. 25, 2019, at the housing authority's offices in north Champaign.

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CHAMPAIGN — Get convicted of a crime, serve your time and then what?

For many convicted felons, part of what happens after prison is being homeless, and that needs to change, according to speakers at an affordable-housing discussion Friday in Champaign.

“If we give people a good place to live, they have a good chance of getting their lives together,” said one panel speaker, James Kilgore, co-director of the First-Followers re-entry program.

There's plenty of places to live in Champaign County — but many can't afford the rent

This was the second panel discussion hosted by the Housing Authority of Champaign County on affordable-housing issues in the community, with this session focused on the difficulty people released from prison face trying to find a place to live.

Safe and secure housing is considered to be an important part of successful re-entry into the community after prison, but it can be hard to come by.

A report last year by the Prison Policy Initiative found that people who have been to prison once are seven times more likely to be homeless than the general public, and the rate of homelessness for people who have been to prison twice is 13 times higher.

It’s not only an affordability issue. It also becomes a discrimination issue when landlords include criminal background checks to help screen tenants, panel speakers said.

Two local township supervisors said they’re seeing a housing crisis in Champaign-Urbana on a daily basis.

The No. 1 reason people call the City of Champaign Township office is about their need for an affordable home, township Supervisor Andy Quarnstrom said.

Growth in the campus housing market has pushed rents to the unaffordable range for lower-income families, and demand for affordable housing has made it easier for landlords to be more selective, according to Quarnstrom.

Cunningham Township Supervisor Danielle Chynoweth said the best time to re-house someone who gets out of prison is right after they’re released — not just for that person’s own sake but for the sake of keeping families together.

”When they have housing, they can chart a new path for themselves,” she said.

Chynoweth urged changes in housing authority eligibility policies to make fair housing rights apply to everyone, regardless of criminal conviction records — except in cases that would violate U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development rules.

She also said subjectivity and favoritism should be removed from housing authority processes, and that the principle of innocent until proven guilty should prevail by removing consideration of past arrests from the housing authority screening process.

Kilgore recalled one encounter with a man who said he’d just gotten out of prison and didn’t have a place to sleep for the night. As it turned out, he said, the man’s release date had been a year-and-a-half prior to that night, but his prison stay had been extended because he had no place to call home.

Fair housing is an aspiration, Kilgore said, but “it certainly isn’t a reality.”

Dionne Clifton, managing broker/Realtor for Live Real Estate, said the rights of landlords must be balanced with the rights of those needing housing. In areas where landlords can’t do criminal background checks, a reluctance to invest can cause property values to decline, she said.

On the other hand, information obtained through criminal background checks isn’t always useful, Clifton said.

Consider two people arrested for the same crime — one who was convicted, one who wasn’t — and the person who wasn’t may have been able to afford a better lawyer, Clifton said.

Housing authority CEO David Northern Sr. said the agency’s goal is to develop a more inclusive policy, and it’s already taking steps to do that while ensuring the safety of its residents.

One of those changes has been a mandatory informal review of an application that has been rejected due an applicant’s criminal background, he said.