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New York City Housing Authority’s Family Reentry Pilot Program

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Summer 2016   


New York City Housing Authority’s Family Reentry Pilot Program

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA)’s “lookback period,” which requires former offenders to wait a number of years before they can live in public housing, makes it difficult for formerly incarcerated individuals to live in public housing or rejoin their families on NYCHA leases. A new pilot program, however, is testing a change to that policy.

NYCHA’s Family Reentry Pilot Program, launched in 2014, serves former offenders aged 16 and older who have been out of jail for less than 3 years and who wish to join their families in public housing. Participants receive case management tailored to their needs for a minimum of six months and up to two years, which can include substance abuse treatment, mental health support, provisions to clean up a credit history, and support for navigating the court system. At the end of two years, if the participants have successfully reentered and if their families agree, they are added to the family’s public housing lease.

The program was developed by the nonprofits Vera Institute of Justice and the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH), the Department of Corrections for New York City and New York State, the New York City Department of Probation, and a number of reentry service providers. The city’s Department of Homeless Services is funding the case management component, and NYCHA has devoted staff to the program. To decide whether to admit an applicant, NYCHA examines a person’s track record during incarceration and release and the person’s motivations for returning home, such as wanting to be a good parent.

The pilot has an acceptance rate of about 53 percent, says Margaret diZerega, the project director of sentencing and corrections at the Vera Institute. Twenty-two percent of applications were closed or withdrawn before they were accepted because applicants changed their mind or were ineligible. Some 14 percent of applicants have been denied because the victim of the crime may live in the housing development where they wish to reside, because the family’s tenancy is problematic (that is, the household is arrears in rent or engaged with legal proceedings, although these conditions do not automatically disqualify an applicant), or because there is no clear indication that the applicant is headed on a different trajectory, diZerega says. In other instances, NYCHA has deferred applicants for six months, asking that they spend a bit more time out in the community before reapplying.1

Of the 73 people who have enrolled in the program so far, there have been no new convictions. Because the program is still new, only five people have “graduated” since its inception. Three joined their families’ NYCHA lease, and two decided that they no longer wanted to live in NYCHA housing. diZerega considers the latter outcome a success as well, explaining that the participants “were able to get reestablished and are doing well in the community.”2

Because the formerly incarcerated are at an elevated risk of homelessness — 19 percent of people who left prisons in New York State during 2015 lived in a homeless shelter — the program stands to decrease homelessness among participants and save public money otherwise spent on incarceration and homeless shelters.3 It has other benefits, however, thanks to the reciprocity of relationships among family members. For example, says diZerega, in many cases, the person moving home is joining an elderly parent with health needs; living together allows the formerly incarcerated person to help the parent with medication compliance, grocery shopping, and other wellness needs.

The Vera Institute is conducting an evaluation of the pilot, which it expects to release during fall 2016. Among its goals is to determine how many people might benefit from this program and assess its benefits to participants, such as how living in a safe, stable environment enables participants to work on employment and educational goals.4

Because NYCHA is the nation’s largest housing agency, the pilot has the potential to benefit many thousands of people within NYCHA, should the agency decide to expand the program.5 To bring the program to scale, the housing agency would need to build capacity to administer the program. Moreover, the pilot stands to function as a successful model of how to lift local bans for other public housing agencies around the country. The program has already begun to change other aspects of NYCHA policy. Formerly, if a person living in NYCHA housing were arrested on agency property, and the arresting officer gave testimony about the arrest to NYCHA, that person could be permanently excluded from NYCHA, meaning that they could never return to public housing. The policy was meant to preserve a family’s tenancy — to ensure that the entire family would not be evicted. The permanent exclusion policy is one reason why so many people had initially been rejected from the pilot; CSH found, on examination, that about half of applicants were permanently excluded. Now, participants can take part in the pilot even if they have been permanently excluded; if the participant successfully completes the two-year program, they can permanently join the family lease and their exclusion disappears. Presently, NYCHA is examining the number of people the permanent exclusion affects with the possibility of revisiting the way that this policy is written. CSH’s Erin Burns-Maine says that this “is an unanticipated outcome of the pilot that has the potential to benefit many.”6

Earning applicants’ trust has been another challenge. “It took a significant public education effort by NYCHA and partners to increase our application numbers, as people with justice histories initially feared coming out of the shadows,” says Burns-Maine. NYCHA, CSH, and others have conducted considerable outreach to persuade potential participants that they will not be penalized even if they are presently living off-lease (which violates NYCHA rules) and that the pilot is a safe way to return to their families’ leases.

  1. Interview with Margaret diZerega, 25 April 2016.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Corporation for Supportive Housing.  2015.  “Promoting Access to Safe, Stable Housing for All New Yorkers.”
  4. Interview with Margaret diZerega.
  5. Interview with Erin Burns-Maine, 26 April 2016.
  6. Ibid.


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The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.