Lehman Alum is Bending the Arc of Housing Justice

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A group of people holding signs advocating for housing rights
Fair Chance for Housing advocates gathered near the Federal courthouse in Manhattan to fight for housing justice.

Safe, reliable housing is fundamental to anyone’s health and wellbeing— physically mentally, and financially, as well as for positive family and social relationships. Yet 750,000  New Yorkers are housing-insecure because of a previous incarceration. Many are among the 80% of formerly incarcerated Americans—over half a million people—who have been denied housing solely because of a conviction record.

Now, thanks to the persistent efforts of Lehman alum Hilton N. Webb Jr., LMSW to pass the Fair Chance for Housing Act, justice-involved people will soon have fewer obstacles when looking for a place to live.

“You can hate that monolithic ex-con, right? But it's harder for you to hate me,” said Webb. “I put a human face on this reality. I stand up and say ‘I did X amount of time. I didn't even do the crime, and I’m coming out and want to be productive, but I can't be productive unless I have a place to stay.' My argument is, ‘when is my punishment over?’.”

Housing reform advocate Hilton N. Webb, LMSW

Fair Chance was passed by the New York City Council in December of 2023 and became law in January, and stipulates that most private landlords must consider all relevant factors for tenancy on an application before conducting a criminal background check. If they choose to do a check they may only consider felony and misdemeanor convictions within certain time periods when making a decision to rent, with some exemptions for specific offenses and living situations.  And even then, they also have to follow a “fair chance” process and consider any mitigating information provided by the applicant before making a final determination.

A social worker and harm reduction counselor who graduated from Lehman in 2021 with two certifications in substance abuse and alcoholism counseling and a master’s degree in social work, Webb has personally encountered barriers to housing. Formerly incarcerated himself, he spent the first six years after his release trying to secure an apartment, although he was working and pursuing higher education. Only this past October was he able to sign the lease on his Hamilton Heights apartment. And without the Fair Chance act in place, Webb would face the same obstacles once more, should he have to move again.

A record of prior conviction is often the only impediment to housing, even for someone with a job, the means to pay rent, and good references—not only impacting them, but also their families. What’s more, there is a fifty percent chance that landlords will not even permit such prospective tenants to view an apartment.

The new law means that “ten years from now, somebody who has been in prison and is trying to move on will have a much better chance of renting an apartment, because initially it doesn't matter,” said Webb. “A criminal history is not indicative of an ability to pay.”

Webb was recruited to work on the Fair Chance for Housing steering committee through his connections at the John Jay Institute for Justice and Opportunity. He collaborated with other activists to shape policy and advocate for the law’s passage.

The Fair Chance for Housing Act goes into effect Jan. 1, 2025. Increasing awareness is the priority now, so that formerly incarcerated people, their families, and landlords all know their rights. “We have to prepare the water so everybody realizes that this is available,” Webb said.

“I want America to live to what it's supposed to be. So, I want to do everything I can that, to paraphrase Martin [Luther King], is going to make the arc of justice bend a little quicker.”