For most of us, signing a new lease or applying for a new job can be nerve-wracking. You second guess yourself, wondering about your credit history or if the potential employer or landlord disliked you. The stakes are high when your family depends on you to put a roof overhead and food on the table.

Oklahoma resident Joy Block experienced that and more after being released from prison and trying to find a permanent address for her and her children. Many individuals willing to take them in also had prior criminal records, which is a living situation prohibited for the formerly incarcerated. Block says she moved from place to place and sometimes stayed on the street. She was struggling daily to find food for herself and her children.

Block was caught in a vicious cycle well known to the formerly incarcerated. Because she’d served her time and was trying to do better, she was accepted into Exodus House, a Christian organization in Oklahoma City, where she received the support to get back on her feet. She started her own savings account, transitioned her family into stable housing, and got herself off probation. She now advocates for the formerly incarcerated on behalf of Prison Fellowship, a faith-based advocacy group for incarcerated individuals.

Block represents one in every three Americans who live with a criminal record. At the state and federal level, there are more than 1,300 legal barriers to housing and residency related to a criminal record, including Oklahoma’s lack of affordable housing and restrictions on public housing vouchers. 

Most Oklahoma lawmakers acknowledge that access to housing is a critical step in successfully reintegrating the formerly incarcerated and putting a stop to the cycle of incarceration. The Vera Institute estimates that 233,000 Oklahomans are ineligible for housing due to restrictive laws and policies regarding criminal records.

That is why Representative Tammy West, R-Oklahoma City, and Senator Dave Rader, R-Tulsa, authored legislation specifying that affordable housing applicants with a criminal record should have their applications reviewed on a case-by-case basis. It discourages landlords from automatically denying someone based on their criminal history and encourages them to consider the steps someone has taken to change their life. 

It is important to note that no Oklahoma property owner would be required to lease to any individuals they deem a safety risk; however, this legislation would prohibit them from categorically excluding renters with a criminal record. House Bill 3499 would create a fair and transparent process for Oklahomans committed to rebuilding their lives and contributing to society. 

The legislation also aligns state regulations with federal guidelines already established by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), requiring property owners who benefit from Affordable Housing Tax Credits to conduct thorough, individualized reviews of prospective renters with prior criminal histories.

It urges property owners to consider a variety of factors, including the nature and severity of the offense, the individual’s efforts to rehabilitate, their employment history, educational achievements, and community involvement. That thoughtful determination would replace blanket denials based solely on criminal records with case-by-case criteria to assess any potential safety risks. That would also mean no more blanket discrimination practices based on background checks, giving applicants notice and allowing them to provide corroborative documentation.

Providing individualized assessments in housing determinations, rehabilitation, and restitution can create stronger communities. By discouraging blanket denials based solely on criminal records and advocating for transparency in the screening process, these are conservative policies which will promote public safety in Oklahoma.