Parolees, probationers now eligible for Section 8 housing vouchers in LA County

L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl led the effort to remove some criminal background checks from Section 8 applications.
L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl led the effort to remove some criminal background checks from Section 8 applications.
Brian Watt/KPCC

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The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to lighten criminal background checks for people applying for Section 8 rental vouchers - but an enormous wait list means the effect won't be felt for years. 

The board split 3-2 in favor of the change, with Supervisor Hilda Solis providing the third vote - after some alterations to the original proposal. Under the compromise, the new rules will not apply to the 3,229 public housing units the county owns and runs itself.

"This is a national movement, the federal government does it and so does the city of Los Angeles," said Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who authored the proposal. "We're the only ones who say you can't access this program because five years ago, you were convicted of a drug crime."

Under the new rules, people on probation or parole will no longer be automatically excluded from the Section 8 program, which is federally funded and provides vouchers for apartment rentals. Those convicted of drug crimes in the past two years can still be excluded from participation.

The change also limits when the Housing Authority of the County of Los Angeles can turn people away based on their criminal history by requiring the agency to define what sorts of previous crimes could present public safety concerns.

But the new rules apparently won't make much of a difference for years.

The wait list for Section 8 housing is so long the housing authority stopped accepting new applications in 2010 - and doesn't expect to open it up again for another two years, according to it's director, Sean Rogan. There are 43,000 applications on the list already.

He told the board Tuesday he expects only 1,200 Section 8 spots to open up this year. 

Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Don Knabe, who voted against the change, expressed concern that those with criminal histories may now be able to jump the wait list.

Currently, the only people who can bypass the wait are chronically homeless who come in through referral from a homeless services provider, according to Rogan. It's unknown how many of those referrals could be for people with criminal backgrounds that are no longer subject to restrictions.

Individual landlords will still be able to run criminal background checks on potential tenants. 

In an interview, Kuehl said the restrictions may have been creating homelessness, because people released from jail or prison have been unable to live with relatives who had housing vouchers.

She said there's no evidence the restrictions had created safer housing.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey also supported the measure.

"This is a start, but it's not nearly enough," said Susan Burton, head of A New Way of Life Reentry Project, which runs programs for people coming out of prison and jail in South Los Angeles. She advocated for lifting the restrictions on public housing properties as well.

Solis said she held community meetings in several public housing developments run by the county and residents told her they didn't want the restrictions lifted. 

"We heard their concerns and I'm happy today that we've reached this compromise," she said.