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Delaware housing authorities hope to bring new life to reentry housing program

Dover Housing Authority.jpg
Paul Kiefer
Delaware Public Media
Homes owned by the Dover Housing Authority.

The Delaware State Housing Authority and its partners hope to revive a program intended to connect people leaving prison to housing and family reunification opportunities.

DSHA took the lead in 2018 when Delaware’s five public housing authorities and the Department of Correction sought a grant from the New York-based Vera Institute for Justice to fund a Family Reentry Pilot Program.

The program allows people leaving custody to live as a guest in public housing with a close family member for one to two years; by treating them as a guest, the program allows a person to earn an income without impacting their relative's eligibility to remain in the unit. Cities like New York run similar programs, but DSHA Director of Policy and Planning Devon Manning — one of the figures involved in the program's launch — says Delaware's pilot program stands out as a rare state-wide coordinated effort involving a half-dozen agencies.

The program launched in 2019 after more than a year of standardizing admissions policies across agencies and holding public hearings for community input.

But in the three years since the program's launch, it has struggled to connect anyone leaving custody to housing with a family member in public housing.

Manning says the pandemic did not help. "We had so much momentum, and we were starting our public hearing process in 2020," she said.

But DSHA Chief Strategy Advisor also notes the program’s initial requirements cover an extremely narrow group of people. "It's a numbers problem," she said. "There are only so many public housing units, period. And then you have to have someone who is reentering the community who is living in that public housing unit and both those people have to agree to that arrangement and want it. It's a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack." Delaware has just under 2,500 public housing units.

Del Collo also notes that some applicants may not have understood that the program applies only to public housing units, not units paid for with rental vouchers provided through housing authorities.

The agencies involved in the program still hope to eventually expand the program to cover rental voucher recipients, but Manning says the program needs to demonstrate its effectiveness in public housing first. "We start with public housing because we're the landlords in that case and we have the ability to amend our admissions and occupancy policies to allow these arrangements," she said. "We would be able to demonstrate to the wider housing community that we've had some success and crime has not increased. Then we could launch phase two by bringing in private landlords."

This year, DSHA and its partners hope that a renewed effort to raise awareness of the program could bear fruit. Del Collo notes that while the last round of outreach focused largely on people in custody, the next round of outreach will primarily focus on public housing residents.

Manning adds that outreach efforts to public housing residents will also be an exercise in trust-building. "We should acknowledge that public housing authorities have a history of being very strict about people who are or were justice-involved living in public housing," she said, adding that the Delaware Center for Justice has been a crucial partner in that process.

New Castle County Division of Community Development and Housing Manager Carrie Casey says that while bringing the program to life is a valuable first step, agencies like hers should search for more substantial opportunities to break down reentry housing barriers.

"Let's say you waited for ten years to get a Section 8 voucher, and you've recently been released from prison — you're still going to run into trouble trying to secure that voucher if you're on active probation," she said. “We’ve got to look bigger than just this family reentry program pilot."

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.