How Cities Can Create Housing Solutions for Returning Citizens


  • Tony McCright, Jr.
  • Patrick Hain
January 31, 2023 - (5 min read)

Every year more than 700,000 individuals are released from state and federal prisons. These individuals return many times to the places that they called home and, as such, are returning citizens. The term ‘returning citizen’ replaces the stigmatized terms ‘ex-con’, ‘ex-felon’, etc., and refers to an individual who is returning home after being in prison or jail. Once home, these returning citizens often face homelessness because they lack the public support needed, landlords that are willing to engage, or don’t have the personal network to secure safe consistent housing. In fact, returning citizens are ten times more likely to be homeless than the general public. Stable housing is an asset to any person as it allows them to better integrate within the community, know and plan for rent payments, improve employment outcomes, and over time, increase their economic mobility. Nationally, 44 percent of returning citizens reoffend (i.e., the recidivism rate), which can be tied to their lack of securing and keeping employment.

Get Connected

For more information about reentry programs and services, join the Municipal Reentry Leaders Network.

In 2022, NLC launched the Municipal Reentry Leaders Network (MRLN). The MRLN brings together city-led reentry center directors, as well as leaders from community-based organizations, returning citizens, and higher education reentry initiatives. MRLN encourages the adoption of promising, evidence-based practices expanding reentry services and support via policy and budgets. During the network kickoff, city reentry leaders nationwide identified the lack of adequate housing as the biggest challenge their offices faced in providing support to returning citizens. Municipalities’ efforts to rise to the challenge, such as St. Louis, which turned a release center into a transitional housing center, can’t keep up with the need of housing for citizens released from incarceration. As a result, NLC has partnered with the Departments of Labor and Justice, National Reentry Resource Center, National Low Income Housing Coalition, National Association of Counties, and other organizations to inform local reentry leaders of programs and funding opportunities that municipalities can take advantage of as they seek solutions to their housing issues.

Public Support for Returning Citizens

Understanding the reentry landscape is the first step cities can take in developing effective programming and ultimately creating equitable solutions to local transitional housing shortages. NLC undertook a nationwide scan of the city reentry landscape and identified key emerging opportunities for the local reentry field, one of which is to collaborate with business leaders and other city agencies to identify pathways to housing. Some examples of cities using collaborative efforts in supportive housing include:

  • San Francisco’s Reentry Transitional and Supportive Housing initiative is part of the city’s comprehensive behavioral health-focused reentry program. The Adult Probation Department partners with higher education institutions, local community-based organizations, health agencies, and businesses to provide returning citizens housing and other services to support their transition back to their communities.
  • In Philadelphia, a collaboration between the Housing Authority, Reentry Court, and Federal Probation Office gives returning citizens assistance to help rent a house in the private market for 2 years. The Second Chance Voucher program also teaches financial literacy, reduces the individual’s time on probation, and offers assistance in securing housing at market rates upon completion.
  • 14 cities in California’s State University System offer housing as part of its Project Rebound program for returning citizens, the first in the nation to do so. Project Rebound touts its holistic approach as the reason for its 0% recidivism rate.

Housing Authorities Play an Important Role

Currently, individual housing authorities have broad discretion to bar people who have been impacted by the justice system in various ways. However, in what is seen as a promising development, in April of 2022, Housing & Urban Development Secretary Fudge ordered a review of all HUD policies, regulations, and guidance that pose barriers to housing for people with a criminal history. Along with this directive, HUD also released a new webpage with resources to help continuum of care, regional entities responsible for coordinating homelessness services, collaborate with legal system partners to increase access to affordable housing for people returning to their communities from incarceration. A similar directive was issued in 2016, which resulted in guidance to landlords not to exclude applicants based solely on criminal records, however, until such recommendations become policy, landlords can continue to ignore these best practices from the Federal Government. Local leaders have an opportunity, with Secretary Fudge’s order to engage with their local public housing authority to see what it has done to help returning citizens, including policies reviewed, policies modified, budget allocations, and historic results from efforts.

Returning citizens come home to every community throughout the country as such, this topic is important for all local leaders. More can be done to assist these individuals in gaining stable housing, and local leaders play an important role in creating stronger partnerships, policies, and programs to ensure that all who return home have the opportunity to live their lives outside of the system.

For more information on strategies and actions, your community can take to increase the upward economic mobility of all residents, check out NLC’s Economic Mobility Toolkit.

Join Us

Sign up to join NLC’s Economic Mobility Peer Network (EMPN), a group of city leaders, staff and partners that are invited to come together each month for opportunities to network and hear from leading experts on topics designed to help support cities boost economic mobility for their residents using strategies that are grounded in equity.

About the Authors

Tony McCright, Jr.

About the Authors

Tony McCright Jr. is the Program Manager for Justice Initiatives at the National League of Cities.

Patrick Hain

Patrick Hain is a Program Director, Economic Opportunity and Financial Empowerment, and Municipal Practice team at the National League of Cities.