The Austin Chronicle

Gimme Shelter

Formerly incarcerated face a particularly chilly housing market

By Amy Kamp, January 29, 2016, News

On January 1, HB 1510, a bill that exempts landlords from the threat of civil liability for renting to people with criminal records, took effect. The bill was crafted by criminal justice reform advocates concerned about the barriers to housing faced by people with criminal records. They believed that without fear of civil liability, landlords would change common existing policies that flatly refuse to rent to people with criminal records, a policy that is perfectly legal in Texas. But thus far, the law has had little impact.

The housing market in Austin is notoriously difficult for renters. Even for people with solid credit histories and no criminal records, there is a dearth of affordable housing. The problem is compounded for people with criminal records, who quickly discover that few landlords will even consider their applications. Texas Criminal Justice Coali­tion policy analyst Douglas Smith, who worked to pass HB 1510, and who has a 2009 felony conviction, told the Chron­icle that he was a passionate advocate for the bill, even spending his vacation time testifying on its behalf before the Texas Senate, because the real estate industry had told advocates that it was the threat of civil liability that was holding them back from renting to people with criminal records. However, Smith has found himself unable to find housing in the new year.

Smith has lived with family since being released from prison in 2014, and currently lives in his parents' garage apartment. As he previously told the Chronicle (see "Get­ting Outside the Box," Oct. 9, 2015), his crimes occurred during a time when his alcoholism had led to a crack addiction. Despite being sober for several years and currently employed in a decently paying, demanding job, Smith's record prevents his lease application from even being considered by most apartment complexes. As he explains on his blog Rocks and Thorns, part of what's keeping Smith – a white male with a white-collar job – from finding housing, is very likely racism. Landlords can bar all applicants with criminal records without violating the Fair Housing Act, which forbids discrimination on the basis of race, even though African-American and Latino applicants are more likely to have criminal records and so are disproportionately affected by such policies. If a landlord were to begin to make exceptions, they would become vulnerable to claims of racial discrimination. Smith recounts one exchange with a landlord: "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."

Smith recognizes that he's relatively lucky compared to most people with criminal records. He has a supportive family, a good job, and doesn't have to worry about finding housing for his child, who lives with his ex-wife. Those who have custody of their children face steeper hurdles in finding a place to live. Many single people with criminal histories either stay with family, or rent out accessory dwelling units from sympathetic homeowners, but those options are often untenable for parents with children. Isa Arizola, who has a felony conviction from when she was a teenager, until recently was able to live without incident in an apartment with her children and husband. Her husband, who does not have a criminal record, was the only name on the lease. But when the complex changed ownership, they asked Arizola to fill out an application so that both adults would be on the lease. When they discovered Arizola's criminal record, they gave the family 30 days to move out. Arizola and her children are now living with her parents. "My kids are suffering the consequences of what I did several years later," Arizola said. "They ask me, 'When are we going to move out?' But it's not that easy." Arizola, who works for Goodwill and is studying to become a licensed social worker, says that the lack of housing opportunities is not only forcing people like her to live with their families, but keeping people who are homeless from finding permanent housing.

City Council Member Greg Casar, who has spearheaded Council's proposed fair chance hiring ordinance, says that he will follow the lead of the advocates who have been working on that endeavor, but that he believes that his push to increase accessory dwelling units (ADUs) will improve affordable housing opportunities in general. "My office supported more garage apartments in Austin for many reasons, but one of them was that they create more options for people facing barriers finding housing. Caritas Executive Director Jo Kathryn Quinn, in particular, supported the ADU reforms we passed because many of the people her organization serves have conviction histories, low credit scores, or lack of recent rental history. She also mentioned that people who recently have experienced homelessness would benefit from more ADUs. Individual homeowners that rent out their back-house can provide housing opportunities that big corporate landlords often, by policy, do not."

Casar, who is still working on building support for a fair chance hiring ordinance, which should go before Council in the next couple of months, told the Chronicle that he is considering multiple ideas to help alleviate the problem, including providing incentives for developers who are willing to rent to people with criminal histories who meet certain criteria. Casar acknowledges that the lack of available housing for people with criminal records is just one piece of Austin's affordable housing crisis. "We're in a landlord's market. If we don't have more than enough housing, landlords are going to have that advantage. It's really important for us to have more than enough housing for our population so that landlords have to compete for tenants."

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