I was 23 years old and sitting in a Philadelphia law school lecture hall when I first learned of Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co—a 1968 case wherein the Supreme Court held that Congress could use its enforcement power under the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, to prohibit private racial discrimination in the sale of property. At the time, the Jones decision was just shy of forty years old. After class ended, I returned to my Center City studio—the first apartment I ever rented. The first lease that bore my name. What I didn’t know then, as a new student of the law, was that like Jones, I too would face housing discrimination. What I couldn’t anticipate was that on the eve of my fortieth birthday, to secure the housing my wife and I needed, I’d choose to not put my name on a lease. Not because I was Black. Not because I was queer. But because I was a felon.
Between 1980 and 2019, the number of women serving time in prisons across the United States skyrocketed by more than 700%. This increase in women’s incarceration impacted Black women the most—we were and are twice as likely to be imprisoned as our white counterparts. The carceral state’s disparate impact extends well beyond prison walls. The anti-Black woman discrimination reflected in the norms, policies and procedures upheld by police, prosecutors, judges, and correctional officers, alike, does not cease once a bid is completed. It seeps into our access or, more precisely, lack thereof to shelter.
According to Linda Smith*, a 56-year-old formerly incarcerated Black woman who was placed on supervised release in 2020 after serving five years in prison, one of the hardest parts of reentering society was finding housing. “Every day I was looking,” Ms. Smith said. “I would block off hours and be on a laptop. I would look for a place, filling out applications. And I was calling everybody.” Initially, landlords expressed interest in renting their privately-owned spaces to her. After, however, the results from Ms. Smith’s background checks came in, her housing prospects dimmed. “When they find out I’m a felon, they would be like, ‘No!’” The housing discrimination Ms. Smith endured rendered her housing insecure.
Housing insecurity occurs when a person’s living situation is precarious, at best, and nonexistent, at worst. Nonexistent housing leaves a person homeless. Homelessness occurs when a person lives in a place not meant for human habitation, such as the streets, or in a shelter. Formerly incarcerated Black women experience the highest rate of sheltered homelessness. Our housing insecurity often stems from our inability to afford housing upon our release from prison. The government defines affordable housing as that which costs no more than one-third of a household’s combined monthly income. But for Black women felons, finding housing valued at 30% of our earnings is a pipe dream.
Formerly incarcerated Black women experience the most severe levels of unemployment when compared to all other intersectional groups. For example, while unemployment for non-formerly incarcerated Black women is 6.4%, 4.3% for non-formerly incarcerated white women, and 23.2% for formerly incarcerated white women, unemployment for formerly incarcerated Black women tops the list at 43.6%. Many, if not most, formerly incarcerated women who are employed have minimum-wage paying jobs, which often only provide part-time hours. As a result of unemployment, underemployment, and non-living wages, Black women ex-cons are boxed out of housing.
Tamiko Burrows, a New York-based Black woman who was 27 years old when she served a state bid in 2001, contends that, for Black women ex-cons, finding affordable housing is impossible because of the wages we earn. According to Ms. Burrows, “Back then it wasn’t as bad as it is now, but the minimum wage was eight dollars, if that. So, nothing I made was ever able to make rent.”
Even Halfway houses—facilities in place to help formerly incarcerated persons transition back into larger society—fall short of providing Black women with the basic resources and support needed for living on the outside again. According to Hillary Washington, a Connecticut-based Black woman who served just under three years, “The halfway house was worse than prison.” There were no employment readiness or job training programs, yet “They just really wanted you to find a job because you had to pay rent,” Ms. Washington said. Although the facility received state funding, “Ten percent of whatever you made went to the halfway house.” Despite Ms. Washington’s best efforts, she couldn’t find a job for the first five of her six-month stay. No work meant an inability to save for and obtain housing. No work meant that Ms. Washington left the halfway house with even less housing security than when she entered it.
Upon her release from prison, Ms. Smith learned that to secure housing, she’d have to pay extra. When a private landlord initially approved Ms. Smith’s rental application despite her conviction history, she told Ms. Smith that the security deposit would be $500. But when Ms. Smith arrived at the rental office to sign her lease, she was met with a significant blow. “It’s been a change,” the property manager said. Instead of the agreed upon $500 deposit, the property manager demanded a $2,500 deposit before presenting Ms. Smith with a Hobson’s choice, “You can take it or leave it.” Not taking it meant Ms. Smith wouldn’t have a lease with her own name signed across the dotted line, or a home of her own—two conditions of her release from prison. Not taking it would have meant Ms. Smith could be violated and re-incarcerated. Ms. Smith knew better, “I had no choice but to take it, you know?”
For Black women, housing discrimination by property owners combined with the inaffordability of “affordable” housing results in a looming threat of recidivism. When Ms. Burrows was released from prison, her criminal record, limited skill set and minimum wage job mandated she move in with her older sister. When asked if she considered returning to the streets for employment at that time, her answer was immediate, “I definitely did.” According to Ms. Burrows, “I wasn’t making it. [My sister] already got her own son, and she got my brother. So that’s a lot of responsibility. The burden was on her. And I just didn’t want to be nobody burden. So, I went back to Binghamton and then I went to Pennsylvania, and I started doing what I knew how.”
The carceral system’s long arm extends well past the clink of handcuffs around a first-time offender’s wrists, a head being tucked by a callous palm into a squad car’s rear, a courtroom governed by theater rather than truth, a prison where programs are scarce. The carceral state claims lives from first contact to last breath, even though most of us are relinquished from its clutches well before then. Sentences are served, yet criminal records persist in perpetuity, serving as both impetus and waiver for discriminatory housing practices. For Black women, housing insecurity is the thin line between staying out of or returning to prison. All Black women, especially formerly incarcerated Black women, need care, concern, support. All formerly incarcerated Black women, though, need housing.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of each involved party.