Locked Out of Housing

Felony convictions hinder efforts to access stable housing even if no prison time is served.

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk
Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

Even if they’ve never served time in prison, people with felony convictions have difficulty accessing stable housing, according to new research from Rice sociologist Brielle Bryan. While other research has shown that imprisonment leads to housing instability, Bryan found that felony status alone was enough to cause “housing instability” — defined as residence in temporary housing (homeless shelters, motels or on the street) or moving frequently.

“Unfortunately, the stigma of a felony conviction doesn’t appear to die off with time,” Bryan said. “When someone is incarcerated, they have to deal with being removed from their neighborhood, their social network and the labor market. Eventually, individuals can recover from the disruption of incarceration and begin to rebuild their lives. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case with felony convictions — my work shows that they follow these individuals and seriously disrupt their housing trajectories.”

What can be done? Bryan noted that while there have been significant bipartisan criminal justice reform efforts, they have largely focused on reducing the size of the prison population through shorter sentences and increased use of community-based corrections. However, this does nothing to change the number of people marked with felon status or alter the stigma they face.

“More investment in reentry programs, as President Biden and others have pushed for, is a great way to help ease the transition from prison back to society, but they don’t help the 12 million Americans with felony convictions who’ve never served time,” Bryan said. “If we’re serious about giving people second chances, we need to do things like remove barriers to getting occupational licenses, enact more automatic record sealing laws like Colorado and Pennsylvania have, and work to limit the use of unregulated and often inaccurate online criminal background check services. Until we take these sorts of steps to lessen the stigma around prior felony conviction, these individuals will face great hurdles as they try to rebuild their lives.”

The study uses data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 and was supported by funding from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies and the Harvard Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality and Social Policy.
— Amy McCaig

The open-access paper, “Housing Instability Following Felony Conviction and Incarceration: Disentangling Being Marked from Being Locked Up” is available here.