Louisiana’s formerly incarcerated struggle to secure housing

Bill to remove background check barriers gets watered down

By: - May 3, 2022 6:18 pm
Bruce Reilly

Bruce Reilly was denied multiple times when he applied to lease apartments in New Orleans. He was convicted of second-degree murder as a 19-year-old and paroled in 2005. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)

Kiana Calloway leads two New Orleans-based nonprofits, one a mentoring organization for at-risk youth and another that assists formerly incarcerated young adults. 

Calloway earns a decent living as well. He says it’s about $60,000 a year, but that income alone is not enough to get him into his own apartment. It’s not that Calloway can’t afford one; it’s that his application is routinely rejected because he was convicted of two counts of manslaughter more than 20 years ago. He firmly maintains his innocence and eventually plans to seek exoneration.   

“They look at ‘Have you ever been convicted of a felony?’ on the application, and eight times out of 10 they’re passing me completely, not doing the background check,” Calloway said in an interview with the Illuminator.

Instances such as Calloway’s are why Rep. Matthew Willard, D-New Orleans, has sponsored the Fair Chance Housing Act, a proposal to smooth the path for the formerly incarcerated as they try to secure permanent housing.  

The original draft of Willard’s proposal would have prevented landlords from using a lease applicant’s criminal record against them if they were convicted of a nonviolent felony more than three years prior or going back five years for a violent felony. Prison terms for violent offenses are typically much longer than five years, so it would be unlikely for prospective tenants to seek housing until after paying their debt to society. 

Still, landlords and Louisiana Realtors opposed those terms, and Willard agreed to hold his bill rather than bring it up for a vote before the House Commerce Committee last month.

Committee Chairwoman Paula Davis, R-Baton Rouge, urged opponents to meet with Willard and work on a compromise, which was reflected in a substitute bill Commerce members approved a week later. The revisions effectively gutted the original proposal but retained language that requires more transparency from landlords.

The substitute legislation, House Bill 1063, is scheduled for House floor debate Monday, May 9.      

“I think you have a bill where, honestly, both sides won’t be too excited about it,” Willard told the Illuminator in an interview, “and I think that is the ultimate mark of a compromise.”

There was no response to the Illuminator’s interview requests from groups representing apartment owners and real estate agents.  

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‘A dice roll’

One of the supporters of Willard’s bill is Bruce Reilly, deputy director of Voice of the Experienced (VOTE). The organization is often the first stop for the formerly incarcerated as they re-enter society. VOTE provides guidance and has helped shape legislation, in Louisiana and beyond, to assist former prisoners with employment, living arrangements and the restoration of voting rights.

A self-described “numbers nerd,” Reilly points to federal data to show the potential consequences of housing policy that builds a wall to exclude anyone with a criminal record. The Bureau of Justice Statistics counts 1.9 million Louisiana residents with a criminal history – nearly half of the state’s population – according to the 2020 Survey of State Criminal History Information Systems.

Reilly also has a personal interest in Willard’s proposal. His criminal and personal history have been well publicized. He was convicted of second-degree murder as a 19-year-old in Rhode Island and sentenced to 20 years in prison and 25 years of probation. After being paroled in 2005, Reilly enrolled in college and took the standardized Law School Admission Test. He scored in the top seventh percentile and applied to more than 30 law programs. Only one, Tulane University, accepted him.

Since moving to New Orleans, Reilly said he has been denied multiple times for apartments. He’s never received an explanation why and lost those non-refundable application fees. For someone just released from prison, Reilly said it’s typical to have to apply at more than one location because of the high rate of rejection.

“If you’re gonna apply for 10 places and you got a record, you know that it’s a dice roll,” he said, “and you’ve got to pay 40 bucks (per application) – that’s $400. That’s maybe half a month’s rent or a third of a month’s rent. Depending on the situation, that’s money out of your pockets, out of all the mouths of your family.”

Eventually, Reilly found a landlord who did not press him for details on his background. Through good references, he has been able to move when needed. Reilly acknowledges the advantages he had when it came to finding housing: He’s white, well versed in the law and knows how to navigate the process. 

But he also knows there’s a high chance that he and his teenage daughter would be rejected if they were forced to move again.

“My daughter has faced discrimination without even knowing,” Reilly said. “When I get denied, she gets denied.” 

Policy slow to emerge

Reilly and other proponents consider the denial of housing for the formerly incarcerated outright discrimination that should be banned by law. Their hopes are that cultural pressure leads to the changes they seek, much in the way the civil rights movement cracked through generations of Jim Crow policy. 

Maxwell Ciardullo, a policy analyst with the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, helped craft Williard’s proposal. It originally declared expunged and pardoned convictions, juvenile records and arrests that didn’t result in a conviction off limits when it came to housing background checks. Those exceptions were removed for the bill to gain committee approval. 

“It would be hard to find a non-discriminatory reason why you would want to consider an expunged record. The state and a judge have already agreed that this record should be confidential and not on someone’s record,” Ciardullo said in an interview with the Illuminator. “Similarly, a conviction that was vacated, overturned or pardoned, it’d be really difficult to find a non discriminatory reason why you think that you should be able to deny someone a home on that kind of record.”

Federal law already covers much of what’s left in Willard’s bill. The Louisiana Housing Corp., the state’s public housing agency, recently updated its policy to bring it in line with federal law for the affordable housing developments they have funded. Those units account for about 10% of all rental housing in the state, and Willard’s bill would apply to the other 90%.

It wasn’t until about 20 years ago that the federal government suggested blanket bans based on someone’s criminal history were potentially unconstitutional. It took until 2016 for Washington to offer guidance on how to use criminal records, which led to public housing agencies creating a matrix that determined how long certain convictions could be used to deny housing. 

But for privately owned properties, Reilly pointed out the wheels of change have to turn within the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the agency created in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis when mortgage-back securities market cratered. The CFPB hasn’t gotten around yet to addressing the needs of the formerly incarcerated, Reilly said, describing their regulatory efforts in the area as non-existent.

“Some would say they’ve been kind of asleep at the wheel,” he said.

Meanwhile, demand for housing remains constant among those exiting the correctional system. The most recent statistics from the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections put the average number of incarcerated people released from state custody at more than 14,000 from 2010 to 2019. A department spokesperson said the COVID-19 pandemic has not significantly impacted those numbers in the past two years.     

Kiana Calloway
Kiana Calloway leads two nonprofits in New Orleans yet can’t clear background checks to rent an apartment because of his conviction on two counts of manslaughter in 1997. He maintains his innocence and plans to seek exoneration. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)

‘Permission to openly hate’

Calloway estimates he’s lost about $3,000 in application fees since being released from prison in 2011. He currently stays with his mother in Harvey, sleeping on her sofa when he could easily afford paying rent for his own place.

Before answering a reporter’s questions, Calloway had taken a phone call from someone who had just been released from prison and was having trouble finding a place to live.

“It seems like people returning home from incarceration [are] the only social group that Americans still have permission to openly hate,” he said.

Calloway was convicted in 1997 on two counts of first-degree murder, one count of armed robbery and a count of feticide. Jefferson Parish records show the murder case was remanded because the court did not allow Calloway to call certain witnesses or require the prosecution to turn over two witness statements.

Prosecutors amended the charges to second-degree murder for the second trial, but a mistrial was declared when seven potential jurors inadvertently saw Calloway’s name listed next to four charges.

At the third trial, Calloway was found guilty on two counts of manslaughter. He maintains his innocence. The office of Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick, who was not yet in office when Calloway was convicted, confirmed the DA has met multiple times with Calloway, as recently as February.

Connick thinks highly of Calloway’s nonprofits and told him his work with the formerly incarcerated would bolster his chances at obtaining a pardon, first assistant DA Margaret Hay told the Illuminator. Calloway said he wants to pursue exoneration instead.  

Meanwhile, he and others like him struggle to secure permanent housing in a marketplace that is free to reject them without consequence.

“I’m not a needle in the haystack,” Calloway said. “I’m a needle in the haystack of needles.”

Willard and backers of his proposal admit it’s far from what they wanted, but they still note the potential for progress should it gain approval from the House and Senate. It would require a housing provider to disclose to an applicant in writing whether the housing provider uses the applicant’s criminal history as a basis for lease eligibility. 

The bill would also require landlords to notify applicants that they can submit evidence of inaccuracies in their criminal record and details on their rehabilitation or other mitigating factors that could explain their past. It’s no guarantee their background would be overlooked, but tenants would at least know it was being considered when submitting an application fee.

Without the stability of a home or someone to take them in, the formerly incarcerated often end up living on the street or sleeping in their cars, Calloway said. The denial of housing plays a significant part in perpetuating recidivism, he added.

Reilly sees it as kicking the problem down the road for someone else to deal with, except that the can doesn’t move very far. 

“I would say that any rational thinker would agree that by denying housing to that person, you’re actually making the community less safe, and so you’re not helping your other tenants as you think you are,” he said. “All you’re doing is making us more unstable.”

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This story was updated to clarify how federal law meshes with the Willard proposal and to reflect the rescheduled hearing date on the House floor.

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Greg LaRose
Greg LaRose

Greg LaRose has covered news for more than 30 years in Louisiana. Before coming to the Louisiana Illuminator, he was the chief investigative reporter for WDSU-TV in New Orleans. He previously led the government and politics team for The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com, and was editor in chief at New Orleans CityBusiness. Greg's other career stops include Tiger Rag, South Baton Rouge Journal, the Covington News Banner, Louisiana Radio Network and multiple radio stations.

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