TESTIMONY OF THE FORTUNE SOCIETY
The Committee on Civil and Human Rights of the New York City Council
Tuesday, September 15th, 2020
Presented by: Stanley Richards, Executive Vice President, The Fortune Society
Good morning. My name is Stanley Richards and I am the Executive Vice President at the Fortune Society. The Fortune Society is a 53 year old organization that supports successful reentry from incarceration and promotes alternatives to incarceration, thus strengthening the fabric of our communities. We do this by: believing in the power of people to change; building lives through service programs shaped by the experiences of our participants; and changing minds through education and advocacy to promote the creation of a fair, humane, and truly rehabilitative correctional system.
While many individuals in the criminal justice world know about The Fortune Society’s role in providing services and performing advocacy for individuals who at some point in their lives were incarcerated, fewer individuals know that we also collect rent, refer calls to our superintendent, and have an annual haunted house party for the kids and other families in the West Harlem community. In other words, we are also the landlord and service provider for two buildings in Western Harlem, so we know the ins and outs of that world as well.
First, we are the service provider for the Fortune Academy, which residents and staff also refer to as “The Castle” because of its beautiful architecture. The Castle is an Emergency and Transitional Supportive Housing Program that provides a safe, rehabilitative community for homeless people coming home from incarceration of have conviction history. Through regular case management, we assist residents with a wide array of needs, including gaining and maintaining more stable permanent housing and employment, substance use treatment and recovery, financial planning and management, and family reunification. Second, we are the landlord for the nearby “Castle Gardens,” a mixed-use, supportive, and affordable residential development and service center in an environmentally sustainable building. Castle Gardens provides long-term housing solutions for homeless justice-involved individuals and their families, as well as low-income individuals and families from West Harlem and the greater New York area.
Fortune decided to build both buildings, in 2002 and then in 2010, because homelessness for people returning home from jail and prison is a massive barrier to reentry and stability. We saw and continue to see the massive impact homelessness has on the men and women who walk through our doors pursuing stability including housing. We saw people come to Fortune seeking employment but having no place to sleep or staying in a shelter. We hear about the stories of people staying in the shelter, trying to maintain their sobriety but trying to navigate the massive drug use that continues in shelters.
In fact, research shows that a conviction record reduces the probability of New York City landlords’allowing prospective tenants to even view an apartment by over 50%.1 In addition, this is a human rights issue that not only affects people with convictions, but entire families as well. This is because landlords often require background checks for every person on the lease, so families are losing out on housing opportunities when landlords reject a family because of one member’s conviction.
As a result of this environment, Fortune’s clients are not alone: close to 30% of recently- released individuals in New York City are currently being funneled directly into homeless shelters.2 When this is done without the necessary resources, homelessness can create a vicious cycle, in which formerly incarcerated people are bounced among a maze of shelters and then thrust back out onto the street in the morning without any direction. It is not surprising that these individuals are then much more likely to recidivate, and continue the cycle of incarceration and homelessness, while also worsening the conditions of community safety.
Despite this fact, safety and community reaction are almost always the two reasons that landlords use when asked why they chose to use criminal background checks when assessing an individual for housing.
As Human Rights Watch has noted, “The existing criteria invite arbitrary rejection of applicants without any careful assessment of any real safety risks they might pose.” As a result of the arbitrary nature of how landlords use criminal history and the fact that it does not have a connection to good tenancy, we urge the implementation of Intro 2047 which is similar to other laws— known as “Fair Chance Housing” laws—passed in a dozen other cities and counties in the United States. It also mirrors guidance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which tells landlords that it should instead do a case-by-case analysis of each tenant and should consider a number of other factors, including evidence of rehabilitation.
At The Fortune Society’s Castle Garden building, we do an individual assessment including interviews, to assess a potential tenant’s application. Instead of running a name through a computer database, our staff does a careful case-by-case analysis of each one of our potential tenants. In doing so, we rely on a number of variable factors that demonstrate rehabilitation and stability and not on the structural racism that underlays our criminal justice system- which is also at the core of HUD’s concern.
As a result of our inclusive and individualized process, we have maintained a safe, striving, inclusive, and thriving community and building. The Fortune Society has also kept its promise to our partners, tenants, and community at large of running and operating a safe congregate supportive and low income housing facility. In fact, a number of community members have even expressed their appreciation that with the presence of the Castle and Castle Gardens, their neighborhood has become both safer and more beautiful.
The Fortune Society urgently requests that City Council members take action to stop the perpetual cycle of landlord discrimination of people with conviction histories in housing. We must all join in solidarity to end the blatant rejection of individuals and their families based on conviction histories. We must see people for who they are, and not what they once did. We must support and offer redemption by practicing and implementing guidance, and laws that uphold the principles of inclusion, and a fair chance.
As a formerly incarcerated man of color, I know firsthand how it feels when you are judged based on what you did or how much time you served. I also know the differences that emerge when you see and engage people without judgement, and you lead with hope and opportunity.
Executive Vice President The Fortune Society