Written By Emily Blackshire-Giel, EJW Housing Fellow Attorney
Edited by Dontae James, EJW Housing Justice Fellow
The impact of having a criminal record can permeate into every part of a person’s life. Over the next month, we’ll be exploring the different ways the criminal justice system makes it difficult for individuals to stabilize and return to everyday life. For the first blog in our three part series, our EJW Housing Fellow Attorney Emily Blackshire-Giel discusses how many South Carolinians are either unhoused or living in poor conditions due to having even a single conviction.
Housing insecurity in South Carolina is a difficult issue that goes beyond not being able to afford housing. Many people in the state face challenges such as poor living conditions, evictions, and homelessness. The lack of affordable housing only makes the problem worse. Communities that are vulnerable face the risk of losing their homes and not having a place to live. One group of people that are particularly at-risk is those with a criminal record.
In South Carolina, one in every three people has some form of a criminal record. While not every one of those people have issues with housing, they have a higher chance of being denied housing. All because they have experience with the criminal legal system.
Arrests Can Result in Losing Financial Security
There are many reasons why someone with a criminal record may have problems finding or keeping a place to live. This begins at the time of their arrest. Depending on the reason of their arrest, they may have to spend time in jail and lose their job due to missing work while in jail, or otherwise waiting for their day in court. Missing work could also mean missing rent payments. This could lead to an eviction. Even if someone isn’t sent to prison after a conviction, their criminal record could prevent them from keeping their home. If the arrest happened at someone else’s home, that person may be in violation of their lease and their landlord may file an eviction.
The benefits one gets from Social Security and Disability will not suddenly end from an arrest alone. However, if a person receiving benefits is in jail or prison for more than 30 days, the Social Security Administration will turn their benefits off. The benefits do not restart until the month after they are released. This could be not only damaging for the person, but for the family home as well. The benefits are meant to help the person receiving them. Often though, the benefits are also helping everyone living in the home. The family members may rely on these benefits to pay rent or utilities. This can uproot families who rely on these payments. It can also raise the risk of eviction for the whole household.
Housing Discrimination and Future Impacts on Housing Access
People with criminal records do not just have trouble keeping housing. They often have trouble getting housing as well. Under the Fair Housing Act, it is technically illegal for landlords to deny housing to tenants just because of a prior arrest or conviction. What happens when a landlord has several applicants to choose from though? It is likely they will choose someone without a criminal record over someone with one.
Depending on the criminal charge, a person may no longer be eligible for public housing programs or related resources. There are two types of criminal charges where someone would be banned from participating in a Housing Choice Voucher program or a Public Housing program:
- if someone manufactured methamphetamine on the premises of federally assisted housing, or
- if they must register as part of the sex offender registry.
Public Housing Agencies must establish standards for other behaviors as well. Particularly standards that prohibit admission of tenants with excessive alcohol or illicit drug use.
Increased Costs of Housing for Tenants Excluded
Tenants who are denied from other apartments may look to smaller complexes. They may look for more forgiving landlords for housing. To do so, however, may mean making sacrifices like:
- spending more money applying for apartments,
- paying higher utility bills in units with outdated heat, electric or water fixtures, and sometimes,
- living in units in desperate need of repair.
People with criminal records tend to have more limited housing options available to them. This means they are more likely to face evictions or live in unsafe, unhealthy housing.
Housing Insecurity Can Also Cause Criminal Records
At first glance, it is easy to cast blame on individuals for their arrests. However, at South Carolina Appleseed, we know that many interactions with the criminal justice system have more to do with poverty than bad intentions. And we know that criminal charges carry many collateral consequences.
When housing is unstable, it is more likely a person turns to crime. People who are experiencing homelessness or who do not have a stable place to call home, even briefly, are eleven times more likely than the general public to be arrested. The lack of stable housing often leads to a web of challenges, making it more likely for the person to have to resort to criminal activities to survive.
We unfortunately live in a world where sleeping on park benches or using the bathroom outside are treated as criminal behaviors. The truth is, these rules are a result of our failings as a society to provide enough affordable and safe housing, mental health care, and substance use treatment. People who are already vulnerable are made more vulnerable by being arrested, rather than housed.
The Criminalization of Poverty
Poverty is criminalized in a way that impacts low-income people at every level. It turns ordinary, non-harmful, just-trying-to-survive acts into criminal ones. This looks like the over-policing of people experiencing homelessness, whose arrests are based on behaviors like sleeping outside or panhandling. This looks like fines and fees that stand in the way of keeping a valid driver’s license (because of the lack of ability to pay child support, court fines, prior tickets – the list goes on). This looks like the permanence of eviction records. This looks like the excessive costs of communicating with or visiting a loved one in prison. This looks like the way someone is eleven times more likely to be arrested if they are unsheltered. This looks like the way having a criminal record makes someone thirteen times more likely to become unsheltered than those without criminal records.
At South Carolina Appleseed, we believe that every person, no matter their history, deserves to have a safe, healthy, stable living situation and that being poor should not be treated as a crime. It is our hope that through our work combating the impacts of criminal records on the rest of tenants’ lives, we can help even the playing field for tenants of all backgrounds.