THE BLOG
04/25/2016 12:43 pm ET

What Is Fair Housing If You Have No Housing?

In April 1968, the Fair Housing Act was signed into law as riots and fires burned around the country following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. In honor of that achievement, April is now named Fair Housing month. And this last week of the month is now re-entry week, calling attention to an important form of housing discrimination. Both are key factors in causing, deepening and perpetuating homelessness and poverty.

The Fair Housing Act prohibits public and private discrimination in housing and requires government at all levels to end the policies and practices that further segregation. But despite the law, in practice discrimination persists, and it directly increases homelessness by making housing more expensive.

Housing discrimination - by race, ethnicity, disability, familial status or other protected class - is a market distortion that increases housing costs and decreases housing choices for those who are its targets, as recently and powerfully illustrated in Matthew Desmond's book, Evicted.

It is a common misconception that people become homeless as a result of personal failures or poor choices. But by far the overwhelming cause of homelessness is the scarcity of affordable housing. Right now, there is a shortage of 7.2 million units of housing affordable for people who are extremely poor.

Discrimination contributes to that shortage by increasing housing costs and decreasing housing choices for its targets - leading many to homelessness. And, once homelessness happens, discrimination continues - on the streets and other public places.

Many cities and some states are attempting to arrest their way out of a homelessness crisis by making it a crime to sleep, sit and even eat in public places, even though there is insufficient emergency shelter as well as housing, as documented in reports by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (the "Law Center").

Meanwhile, public and private landlords use criminal records as a way to disqualify applicants for housing - often without considering the offense or whether it has any logical connection to whether the person would be a good tenant. As a result, many people - including those who have been criminally punished for their homelessness - are unfairly excluded from housing. This can deepen their poverty and push some into homelessness, where they are subjected to criminalization, in a vicious downward cycle.

Earlier this month, the federal government issued guidance prohibiting blanket bans on housing access based on criminal records. This is a very important step forward that advocates, including the Law Center, have pressed for. If properly implemented and enforced, it will help open up housing options for people who might otherwise be unfairly excluded, helping them to successfully re-enter their communities.

The federal government also recently made clear that laws criminalizing homelessness are unconstitutional and bad policy, and research shows that criminalizing homelessness is more expensive than ending it through housing.

Stopping the criminalization of homelessness is critical to preventing so many people - disproportionately racial and ethnic minorities - from entering the criminal justice system to begin with, and interrupting the vicious cycle of being unfairly imprisoned, jailed and burdened with criminal convictions. But much work is needed to redirect local laws and policies away from criminalization and towards housing.

The work that started in 1968 is far from complete. We must continue to fight discrimination for those with housing and for those without - and connecting those struggles makes us more powerful. We must persist, in the spirit of Dr. King, remembering as he said that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."

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