Where do the Returning Citizens Live?


A while back, I attended Housing Virginia’s ‘Overcoming NIMBYism in Affordable Housing’ workshop.  The presentation was great and I was beyond excited when I found out we would have the opportunity to play with Legos (because who doesn't like to play with Legos while at work).

The exercise with the Legos required us to build/design a community that included a certain number of rental units, single family houses, assisted living facilities, and transitional housing for people who were formerly incarcerated.  Each group was assigned a community with mapped out parcels of land and each group member had an assigned role; my role was a low-income rental developer where I was tasked with advocating for my rental properties.

In our community, everything was going great until it came time to place the transitional housing on the map. There was plenty of available land near a daycare center, a hospital, schools, a single family neighborhood, and near the government complex.  Given the various roles of group members, not shockingly, all of those options were a no-go.

Where did we place our transitional housing?  In the neighborhood with distressed and vacant homes, of course.  Did we place only one facility there?  Of course not!  We concentrated all of our transitional housing in one corner of the community.

During the exercise, I began to embody everything of which I am typically most critical. As I got deeper into the exercise, I further concentrated poverty in my community.  Why?  Because it was easy - I received no push-back from other stakeholders and I eventually ran out of energy to put up a fight.

I said all of that to ask this – when it comes to our communities, where do the returning citizens live?  Sadly, if you lived in my make-believe community, or in many communities across the United States, many individuals returning from incarceration are inevitably forced into struggling, dis-invested neighborhoods due to their criminal history.  This is a lose-lose situation based on a lack of housing and employment opportunities and requires a far greater conversation outside of what I outline here.

It isn’t a secret that disenfranchised communities lack the political capital to stand up against the further concentration of poverty in their neighborhoods (or fight gentrification; however we will save that discussion for another time).  It also isn’t a secret that there are many misconceptions about affordable housing, in particular,  housing for former inmates.  

As community developers, where do we start?  

The issue is ridiculously complex; therefore, I don’t think it matters where one starts.

One simple effort I believe we can all make is to address stereotypes, misconceptions, and the fear associated with affordable housing and returning citizens in various venues and outlets.  Talk with people (not ‘to’ people, and definitely not ‘at’ people).  However, do not save these conversations solely for affordable housing events because, let’s be honest, you will be preaching to the choir.   Incorporate myths, stereotypes, and fears into various public awareness campaigns, not solely housing discussions.

Collectively, we have to empower our communities and educate neighboring communities/neighborhoods to address all concerns.  We must have real and honest conversations.  There is not a quick fix or simple solution to this issue; however, I strongly believe that education, advocacy, and community mobilization have to go hand-in-hand. Many of the issues disenfranchised communities face require much broader conversations and interventions beyond this post: Having the conversation and being real, open, and honest is a start.