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Cityscape: Volume 15 Number 3 | Article 2


Rental Assistance and Crime

Volume 15, Number 3

Mark D. Shroder
Michelle P. Matuga

Alcohol, Drug, and Criminal History Restrictions in Public Housing

Marah A. Curtis
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Sarah Garlington
Boston University

Lisa S. Schottenfeld
Mathematica Policy Research


Housing assistance programs are a crucial resource for poor households. Access for families who include a member with a history of alcohol or drug use or a criminal record, however, varies considerably across public housing authorities (PHAs), because alcohol, drug, and criminal history restrictions in the housing assistance programs determine access to this scarce benefit. Very little is known about the specific rules facing poor families who apply for or use public housing. This article analyzes the alcohol, drug, and criminal history provisions governing access to or eviction from public housing using data from 40 PHAs across the country. The data show that nearly all PHAs institute more stringent bans than required by federal law and that individual PHAs exercise a great deal of discretion in setting ban lengths and defining individual problematic behavior. As a result, similar households may encounter radically different rules when attempting to access or retain housing assistance, even within a single PHA. The decision to define those with alcohol, drug, or criminal histories as categorically undeserving of housing assistance undermines other important public policy goals to treat similar populations equitably and to support ex-offenders and their families.

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