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Kamala Harris, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez team up on housing bill

What Biden and Harris' spat means for 2020

Sen. Kamala Harris is teaming up with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to introduce a new bill that would make it easier for people with criminal records to find housing. 

The bill, dubbed the Fair Chance at Housing Act of 2019, would define what can and cannot be legally scrutinized when those with a criminal record apply for federal housing assistance. Among other things, it would make it harder to evict tenants convicted of only one criminal offense, and it would prevent the eviction of family members who knew nothing of a guilty person's criminal acts. 

The bill comes as progressive groups are trying to restore ex-felons' voting rights and improve their job prospects. A number of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle also support giving judges greater sentencing leeway, limiting mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug-related offences.

According to data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, roughly 100 million U.S. adults are estimated to have a criminal record of some kind. A 2016 HUD memo stated, "Across the United States, African Americans and Hispanics are arrested, convicted and incarcerated at rates disproportionate to their share of the general population. Consequently, criminal records-based barriers to housing are likely to have a disproportionate impact on minority home seekers."

Harris and Ocasio-Cortez's bill would turn some recommendations made by HUD in 2016 into law. For example, it would ban blanket "1-strike" policies that allow tenants to be evicted for a single criminal incident, no matter how minor. The bill would also ban "no-fault" policies, which allow an entire family to be evicted for criminal activity by a guest of a household member, even if the family had no knowledge that a criminal act had been committed.

The bill would distinguish between violent and minor crimes. Certain convictions, including drug offenses where "the person served less than 10 years," or where the offenses are related to "fees or back payments associated with incarceration," could no longer prevent someone from seeking federal housing assistance. 

Under the legislation, public housing authorities would not be allowed to subject tenants to "suspicionless" drug and alcohol testing, and new funds would be allocated to provide assistance to the homeless.  

The legislation is only the second bill to be introduced by Ocasio-Cortez, an influential first-term congresswoman from New York and a leader of the Democratic Party's left wing. A sought after endorsement in Democratic primaries, Ocasio-Cortez has praised Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, two of Harris' main rivals in the presidential race. 

"What I'd like to see in a presidential candidate is one that has a coherent worldview and logic from which all these policy proposals are coming forward," Ocasio-Cortez told reporters in May. "I think Sen. Sanders has that. I also think Sen. Warren has that."

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