Past criminal convictions can haunt those seeking to rent a home
Dana Monroe is the primary caretaker for her uncle, who is disabled. Several years ago, her uncle’s health worsened and doctors decided to amputate one of his legs. Her uncle’s bedroom, however, was not on the ground floor.
“At that time, he had to go up and down steps,” Monroe said. “His credit is awesome, but because I’m his caregiver, finding somewhere for him to live was hard. I had to find a private owner, so it was an older house.”
The family’s housing options were limited, because Monroe was convicted of a drug-related felony in 2007.
“I’ve had to fight for housing,” Monroe said. “Since I came home in 2009 — I had one child at the time — I haven’t been able to get any housing assistance, or any government assistance.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development always denies federal housing assistance to two narrow groups: people who have previously manufactured methamphetamine in assisted housing and people on a lifetime sex offenders list. In addition, HUD allows housing providers to exclude applicants who have been convicted of drug-related, violent, or other crimes that might threaten resident welfare — within a recommended look-back period of five years.
One national study of 261 public housing authorities found that roughly half either did not define a look-back period or considered records that were more than five years old.
For the past four years, Monroe has rented from a friend of the family, who is now hoping to sell his property. This has pushed Monroe back into the private housing application process.
“It has been extremely hard — and expensive with housing fees, and nobody gives those back!” Monroe laughs. “$75 a person, $50 a person. Do I get $25 back if I don’t qualify? Because it didn’t cost you $75 to run my credit.”
Monroe likes to present her application in person, because she can distance herself from what real estate agents might imagine from her background check.
“I have three children. I take care of a disabled uncle. I haven’t had any infractions since I was incarcerated. I’ve worked at one place for nine years,” Monroe said. “Those are my biggest steps to let people know.”
Monroe said that realty companies accept her application, but when they present it to property owners, she gets turned away.
“This didn’t work out. We’ll keep looking for you,” Monroe said, paraphrasing the agents. “Basically, giving me a false hope that it’s not my income and it’s not my credit — the two things that I worry about the most.”
This April was the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, which protects buyers and renters across the United States from discrimination by race, national origin, disability, religion, sex, color, or the presence of children.
“It’s good business practice to practice fair housing because it opens the market up to everybody,” said Donna Patton, who teaches the educational requirements for the Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors. “I tell people when I teach the class, ‘We don’t care about anything other than the fact that we want to make sure they can afford what they’re looking at.’”
In 2016, HUD published new guidelines that said “a housing provider violates the Fair Housing Act when the provider’s policy or practice has an unjustified discriminatory effect, even when the provider had no intent to discriminate.”
Barring housing applicants based on their criminal background, the guidelines argued, was a form of discrimination. Because African-Americans and Hispanics are incarcerated at higher rates than are whites, overbroad criminal history-related bans likely have racially and ethnically discriminatory effects, the guidelines stated.
“You’re not able to live over here, but there’s a place over here where people like you — or, people like her — or, people like them — are able to live,” said Eddie Harris, who mentors formerly incarcerated fathers as part of his work for the nonprofit ReadyKids.
“Now, if that’s not discriminatory practice, just enlighten me and let me know what it is. Because it sure smells like it. It sure feels like it. And the results are similar.”
Patton also works as an associate broker with the realty company Keller Williams Alliance. She said she asks for financial information from buyers and that the agents who handle rental properties check credit scores.
“Background checks?” Patton said. “That’s the first I’ve heard of it. I sound a little shocked because I am.”
Harris said he does not want to lump the many forms of discrimination into one bucket, but he does see how much the barriers can affect his mentees’ lives.
“What I try to do is to take the excuses away,” he said. “I’m unable to be a good father if I’m not a good man. I can’t be a good man if I’m not a good human. And I can’t be rehabilitated if I have never been habilitated.”
When the new HUD guidelines came out, Charlottesville’s Public Housing Association of Residents and Legal Aid Justice Center took the opportunity to rethink local public housing policy.
One of the policy ideas, based on public housing in New Orleans, was to use a matrix system to rate the severity of a housing applicant’s criminal background. Qualifying housing applicants would then meet with a screening panel to explain their re-entry efforts.
The current system denies applicants and then allows them to appeal with mitigating circumstances.
“I get maybe two, at most, appeals a year for an admissions decision. I don’t think I’ve ever had people appeal because they were denied for a criminal activity,” said Brandon Collins, an organizer with PHAR. “It’s all just so subjective.”
Collins said PHAR and Legal Aid are thinking about bringing the issue back up with the current board of the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
“I think we currently have a pretty friendly housing authority that understands a lot of this stuff, and they might consider mitigating circumstances more than in the past,” he said.
“We do need to talk to residents,” Collins said. “I’d hate to just hand over our workshop notes to them and a policy and say, ‘Here, pass this,’ with so much time passed since we last talked.”
Harris emphasized that such changes would have to occur in the private realm, as well, to transform the lives of ex-offenders.
“You have a lot of real estate moguls around here in Charlottesville. They own a lot of housing … If the private sector is not on board with these initiatives, they will never win,” he said.
To one formerly incarcerated woman, who wished to remain anonymous, keeping her child out of trouble means finding the right neighborhood. She likes her current home in Albemarle County, but the apartment complex has raised her rent and she can no longer afford to live there.
“I don’t want to move into the projects,” she said. “If you have a distribution charge, they deny you. And honestly, that’s where I got in trouble, at public housing, so I don’t want to bring my child up in that environment.”
She was convicted of a drug-related felony in 2010. When she was released four years later, she got a job as a hair stylist within a week. Since then, she has been promoted three times. She attaches employer and landowner references to her housing applications, but she still has had no luck.
“My unit is very clean. I don’t smoke in my home. I take care of where I live at. I’m very quiet. I don’t bother nobody,” she said. “When they would show an apartment, they would show my apartment.”
Although her housing applications also have been rejected, Monroe tries to shield her children from her concerns.
“My children have never seen a struggle. We have never been homeless. We’ve never had to sleep on anybody’s sofa, floor, in a car — none of that,” Monroe said. “I want my children not to worry about what’s going on. I want them to worry about school.”
Recently, however, Monroe’s oldest daughter’s school worries have become financial.
“School these days, it’s about shoes, how you look, if your hair is the right way,” Monroe said. “I do like for you to have nice things, but I’ll buy them on my time, not because you came hollering and screaming. I’ll get it, but you have to wait for me, because I have bills and other things to do.”
Stories like these motivate Harris’ work with fathers.
“Each individual, hopefully, has a win in their heart,” he said. “I think when we diminish that win in a person’s heart, we not only do them a disservice, I think we do our community a disservice. How in the world can we get to where we’re trying to go to, as a society, if we don’t have all hands on deck? Can we afford the luxury of excluding people?”