Rehabilitating Former Prisoners Starts With Affordable Housing

A new development in Minneapolis will provide apartments for those with criminal records.
(Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)
Nov 9, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Sean Eckhardt is TakePart's editorial fellow.

Facing housing and employment discrimination, people with criminal records may end up on the streets, commit crimes out of desperation, and land back in jail. That’s why Great River Landing, a new housing project in Minneapolis that will offer affordable housing for 72 formerly incarcerated felons, is being hailed as a small but important step in fighting homelessness and mass incarceration.

“Many landlords do not want to rent to people who have a record, and many employers do not want to hire people with any kind of a record,” Kris Berggren, content specialist for Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative, the affordable housing nonprofit behind Great River Landing, told TakePart. “Even people with great intentions, a desire to work, who want to get on their feet really face extra barriers because of perceptions and prejudices.”

Between 25 and 50 percent of the national homeless population has a history of incarceration, according to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council. Great River Landing, for which Beacon obtained full funding in October, is helping those who are unable to find traditional housing because of their past. The project was spearheaded by two of Beacon’s member churches, Plymouth Congregational Church and Westminster Presbyterian Church, both in Minneapolis.

“The only real solution to this is to create affordable housing for this population of individuals,” Sarah Walker, a board member of the Prison Policy Initiative, told TakePart. “As we’ve seen across the country, the ‘housing first’ model has had tremendous success, but we’ve left out one of the most needed populations.”

The complex, which is largely funded through $14.1 million in low-income-housing tax credits from the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency and is scheduled to open in 2018, will house 72 adults, predominantly black men with felony records, many of whom are also fathers and grandfathers, according to Berggren. While making up only 13.2 percent of the overall population, black people comprise more than 40 percent of the homeless population in America, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

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Despite housing formerly incarcerated people, the complex is different from a halfway house or other forms of monitored temporary housing. Each resident at the development will sign a lease and pay rent, which will be determined by a maximum monthly payment set by the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority and federal Section 8 housing guidelines, which generally cap rents at about 30 percent of a person’s income. As long as they maintain their leases, residents will be able to stay in their apartments until they are ready to move on.

“Providing housing to those with criminal histories already makes the whole community safer, and that’s because if you have stable housing and you’re able to find a job, the likelihood of recidivism is reduced,” Walker said.” It saves taxpayers a ton of money by stopping that revolving door.”

The average cost of holding an adult in prison in Minnesota is about $36,000 a year. Nationwide, two-thirds of those released from prisons and jails are rearrested for a new offense within three years. Research has shown that inmates with stable housing recidivate at a lower rate.

Better Futures Minnesota is a nonprofit service provider that works with men who have been incarcerated, helping them to find work and establish a rental history. It will offer services in the building, including job training, as formerly incarcerated people often lack the skills needed to find and keep jobs. The complex will also provide counseling and health and wellness training, which will help former inmates stay healthy, mentally and physically, as they navigate life after prison.

“If you have good services that help people who maybe need to learn some financial literacy, what it means to be a good tenant, paying rent on time, things like that, it really helps people to maintain the stability which helps them with whatever it is that they do with their lives—working, raising kids, whatever it may be,” Berggren said.

Finding the right neighborhood for this type of housing is as important as the building itself. Experts say that for affordable housing to be effective in stabilizing a person’s life, it needs to be in a place where that individual can have access to a job via transit.

“In addition to housing and employment, you also have to have transportation,” Walker said. “I’ve watched people really struggle because they’re having to take two hours each way on a bus somewhere. They get a job, and they can’t keep the job because of the transit options. So it’s really critical that people have access to the services that they need.”

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While Great River Landing will be close to a Metro light-rail line in the trendy North Loop neighborhood of Minneapolis, where the neighborhood association is in support of the project, finding ideal locations is not easy in the face of neighborhood opposition. Walker said that this can be combated by making the public aware of the benefits of affordable housing.

“There’s a whole NIMBY phenomenon that happens. The assumption often is that if housing isn’t built, these individuals will go somewhere else, but in fact they don’t.... They end up homeless and on the street,” Walker said. “We don’t want relocation of individuals from their communities because we know communities, families, any supportive factors, are again what keeps people from recidivating.”

It’s that connection to community and family that Great River Landing hopes to help its residents rebuild.

“We embrace this as a way to end cycles of generational poverty and discrimination and unemployment and all the ills that go with it,” Berggren said. “Here are dads who will be working and be able to support their families, so it’s a way to walk out the values and make something really happen.”