Monday, January 11, 2016

The “T” Word

I recently started looking for an apartment to rent. I’ve been gainfully employed for more than a year. I’m an active and productive member of my community.  My criminal history is just that - history. In short, I’m an outstanding candidate for rental property, except for the fact that I have a criminal background.

I soon learned that it will be more difficult to find rental property than it was to find a job. An apartment locator who specializes in finding rental housing for people with certain types of rental barriers such as broken leases and criminal records told me that there was absolutely nothing she could do for me. Most property management companies refuse to lease to anyone with a criminal record, especially a felony record. A minority of properties make exceptions for DWI arrests so long as they were many years in the past.  The apartment locator told me that I would have a better chance leasing directly from an owner. 

Therefore, I began looking for private landlords advertising rental property on Craigslist. I found a kindly gentleman wanting to lease the guest house behind his home. I told him that I had a criminal record and that I was on parole, but he seemed willing to overlook these issues so long as he had an opportunity to speak to my references. Days later, he invited me to plan for a mid-December move in.  I was thrilled. So was he. He explained that his recent tenant, a college student from an affluent home, was sloppy, financially irresponsible, and had broken his lease in order to move in with friends. 
One week before I was to move in, however, the landlord emailed me. He had studied my criminal record more closely, and changed his mind. I asked for an opportunity to explain what had happened that led me to commit multiple robberies, and what I had done since that time to change my life. He refused to allow me to lease the house.  I said to him,
“Let me be sure that I understand. In light of everything you just experienced with your previous tenant, someone who doesn’t have a criminal record, you are turning down a mature, responsible, financially stable applicant?”  He did not respond. 
Undaunted, I continued to search. I found a privately owned apartment complex managed by a landlord. The rent was in my budget, and the apartment was located less than two miles from my job. I sat down with the landlord to explain my circumstance, what happened, and what I had done to change my life. I handed him a list of references. I then explained that I actively worked to pass HB 1510 during the previous legislative session, and that the bill removes the threat of civil liability when landlords choose to lease to applicants with criminal records. 

He seemed impressed.  He leaned forward and said to me, “I’m one of the most progressive people you’ll ever meet...” I’ve learned that “progressive people” tend to call themselves progressive right before they are about to say something decidedly non-progressive.  He went on: “We used to allow people with criminal records to lease here, but we wound up with a bunch of ‘thugs’ on the property.” I was taken aback.  The “t-word” has become a coded way for people to express racial fears. The criminal-justice system has impacted people of color so disproportionately, that the Department of Housing and Urban Development issued guidance stating that blanket bans on leasing to people with criminal records is racially discriminatory.

What the landlord didn't say was that the area where the apartments were located was becoming trendy, with a high-end health food store on the same block. The more stringent the rental criteria, the easier it is to attract more homogeneous applicants. The landlord told me that their lawyer had recommended that they institute a policy that would prevent anyone with a criminal record from applying.

I asked if they ever made exceptions. He said, “No! If we made an exception for you, a white person, and not someone else, then we’d be violating the Fair Housing Act!”  I was shocked.
In effect, the owner had instituted a policy which will likely prevent many people of color from leasing property; and then refused to make an exception to the policy for an otherwise qualified applicant out of fear of being accused of housing discrimination. 
I checked this out with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Someone who works for an Assistant Secretary emailed me back. He confirmed the twisted logic of the landlord. If a property manager with a policy of not leasing to someone with a criminal record decides to make an exception to that policy, then the criteria the landlord used to make the exception must be used with all applicants regardless of race.  Few owners are willing to trust a landlord or leasing agent to make these decisions; so, rental property remains largely off limits to people with criminal records, despite all the work we did on HB 1510.    

The issue isn’t how to get landlords and property managers to make exceptions to policies that bar people with criminal records from renting apartments. The issue is that those policies shouldn’t exist in the first place.
The only thing that a potential landlord should be able to ask is whether or not we can meet the same rental application standards as renters who do not have criminal records.  

 You Can Help:
The Smart on Crime Coalition created two implementation guides for HB 1510, which removes the threat of liability when landlords decide the lease property to people with criminal records. The first guide is intended for potential renters and their advocates, providing helpful guidance on how to overcome rental barriers due to criminal records. The second is intended as an outreach tool for landlords. Potential applicants should bring this with them when submitting an application.
Let landlords know about the law, and encourage them to remove the criminal background barrier.