A few months after he got out of prison, Darnell Smith found himself hiding in the closet of his family’s apartment.
Because he had a criminal record, he was barred from living with his wife and sons in the St. Nicholas Houses in Harlem, and the New York City Housing Authority would send workers to check if he was there. They would knock on the door, hold up a photo of him, and search the apartment. If the workers found him, the whole family could be evicted. When NYCHA showed up, Smith would jump in the closet and try not to make a sound.
“I was living like I was on the run,” Smith recalls. “The feeling that if I get caught there, my wife will lose her apartment, that she’s taking that risk for me — that weighed so heavy on my heart.”
Coming back from prison is especially hard for New Yorkers who rely upon public housing, who often have nowhere else to go. Most New Yorkers with felony or misdemeanor convictions are banned from public housing for two to six years, while some who committed crimes on NYCHA property are permanently excluded. Some former NYCHA residents end up in homeless shelters; others, like Smith, are “ghost tenants,” living in public housing unofficially.
Pushed by activists and federal housing officials, NYCHA agreed to relax the bans in 2013 to start a pilot program letting people with convictions move back in with their families. Participants get case management, job training, and other support, and if they don’t get in trouble, they can be added to their apartment’s lease after two years.
Ninety-one people have joined the program since 2013, of whom none has been convicted of a new crime or gone back to prison, according to the Vera Institute, one of the nonprofits running the program. While four participants have been arrested and four others violated parole, that’s still a massive improvement from typical recidivism levels: In New York State, four in ten people who get out of prison will return for a new conviction within three years, the Pew Charitable Trusts reported in 2011.
Smith first went to prison when he was 21, on a robbery and firearm charge, and ended up doing almost a decade inside, bouncing around a couple of facilities upstate. When he got out — after having lived as a ghost tenant for a few weeks — he rented a room in Harlem for $600 a month. His sons, who are now twelve, seven, and almost two, didn’t really understand what was going on. He was unemployed and struggling to get by.
The return to living with his family had exactly the effects that social reformers and conservatives alike imagine: Smith found a job through a local nonprofit called Exodus, got hired as a construction worker, and joined a union. He was recently made the foreman on a project in midtown.
The pilot program hasn’t run completely smoothly. Officials originally hoped to have 150 participants in the first two years, but they struggled to sign people up. Some eligible NYCHA residents were reluctant to apply, especially those already living illicitly in NYCHA housing and worried about what would happen if they were denied. “There’s been disbelief that this program is real,” said Margaret diZerega, a program director at Vera.
The re-entry from prison isn’t just a New York issue: Around the country, more than 650,000 people come home from prison every year, according to the Department of Justice, and most cities have similar proscriptions on public housing for those with criminal records.
NYCHA’s pilot program is one of several initiatives to change that. Chicago and Los Angeles are testing similar programs. In March, the New Orleans public housing authority ended its blanket ban on people with criminal records. (Federal policy still precludes people who have to register as lifetime sex offenders or who have been convicted of producing methamphetamine in public housing.)
Some of the participants in New York’s program served more time in prison than they had ever lived outside of it. Raúl Burgos, 41, spent almost twenty years behind bars after being convicted of second-degree murder at age 17. Through the program, he moved back in to his family’s three-bedroom apartment in a housing project in the Soundview neighborhood of the Bronx, where he takes care of his 66-year-old mother, Jesusa Colón.
After two decades inside, Burgos is still adjusting to the world. He gets nervous whenever he steps onto a crowded train, tensing as his mind jumps back to a small cell. He’s also still dealing with his crime psychologically — the street fight that led to his murder conviction took place fifteen minutes from his home. “I’ve driven a block away from it, but I’ve never been back to that corner,” he said.
When we spoke, just before Thanksgiving, Burgos was preparing dinner for thirty people, who, he insisted, would somehow fit into the living room. A small Christmas tree sagging under the weight of lights and ornaments stood in one corner; his big pit bull and tiny cat lay underneath.
Some public housing residents have been less than enthusiastic about the re-entry program. Burgos said some of his neighbors had told him to his face that they didn’t want “a criminal” living in their project.
Nonetheless, NYCHA officials are working on making the program permanent. “We plan on hopefully moving forward in January and it will be a regular part of NYCHA,” Yolanda Johnson-Peterkin, a program director with the agency, said at a panel discussion in November. NYCHA said in a statement to the Voice that the agency was working to identify ways the program can be expanded, but did not provide details on how many ex-convicts would be allowed into the program in 2017.
Officials behind the program say they want it to serve as a model for housing authorities around the country. With 400,000 legal tenants, and a substantial number of unofficial occupants, NYCHA is the largest public housing authority in North America.
One question left unresolved for graduates of the program is whether public housing is their plan for long-term residence. Both Burgos and Smith say they don’t want to stay in NYCHA housing forever. Burgos is currently driving a livery cab and hoping to save the money to move out.
Smith may well be faced with the opposite problem: People in the program don’t have their income counted toward NYCHA limits until they complete two years and get added to the lease. He’ll be on it in a couple of months, and now he’s worried that the pay from his unionized foreman job could put his family over the $78,300 income limit for a family of five. He’s already started to think about renting a new apartment or getting a mortgage to buy a home.
Ironically, he could find himself banned from public housing once again, but for a happier reason — and this time, he won’t have to be hiding in closets.