Recent regulatory changes made by Houston City Council have gone almost unnoticed, but the impact will be significant to vulnerable populations within the city. City Council took up distance-requirement regulations that effectively zone out ex-offenders, forcing them into unincorporated parts of the county.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and City Council passed an ordinance that bans alternative housing and correctional facilities, including reentry homes, from opening within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, or other facilities. The new ordinance also requires reentry facilities, approved by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, to apply for a city permit. The permit will identify the type of facility so local officials can “monitor” the locations of ex-offenders living in private reentry homes across the city, allegedly in the name of public safety.
Houston’s 99 currently operating facilities will be grandfathered in under the new provision. But once the owner sells the facility or passes away and wills it to an heir, the facility must come into compliance with all of the new regulations, including the distance requirement. So, as facilities inevitably change hands over time, many will be forced to close or open elsewhere.
Supporters claim that the regulation will improve “public safety,” but like in many other zoning disputes, it evolved from small contingents of people who felt uncomfortable with the homes in their neighborhoods.
Comments made during the public hearing for this regulation centered largely on a fear of ex-offenders, rather than statistical public safety data.
Providing no evidence or data to substantiate it, Council claimed that having the most alternative housing facilities in the state directly correlates to increased crime. Some even argued that the existing facilities shouldn’t be grandfathered in with the passage of the ordinance.
Members of neighborhood associations testified that they have long pushed for a way to rid their neighborhood of correctional facilities, even though HOA rules and deed restrictions enforced by the city, often prohibit them.
The truth is, this measure is a way to use government to rid communities of private citizens who some homeowners see as undesirable neighbors.
Pushing ex-offenders out of core areas of the city directly affects their opportunities for employment, housing, and education. Harris County sees between 13,000 and 15,000 ex-offenders return home annually. Houston has 99 facilities spread across 600 square miles because the need to accommodate those returning home is growing, not shrinking. By further restricting where facilities can operate, the city is forcing them to move into unincorporated areas of the county, if not another city.
Without a safe and healthy home or accessibility to services, employment, and income, few people could stand a chance at success – especially those coming out of prison with few marketable skills and no more than $100 in their pocket. Without support, there’s an increased risk of ex-offenders recidivating.
Usually, arguments about rehabilitation or correctional housing surround government support, but this is an instance where government is injecting itself into a situation and creating the problem.