Out of jail, yet out of luck: Following HUD's lead, Durham Housing Authority board to consider relaxing housing rules for ex-offenders
Drew Doll had been living in transitional housing in Durham for four years when he finally found a nice apartment he could afford. And he had everything he needed to get it: money to pay the application fee and deposit. After applying for 137 jobs, on the 138th try, he was hired at a fast-food place and earning enough to make the monthly rent.
But the property manager turned him down.
“I asked myself, ‘Why in the world did I get rejected?’” Doll says.
The apartment complex would not accept ex-offenders, even those convicted of non-violent crimes. Doll, a former accountant, was released from prison in 2010 after serving four years for embezzling $250,000 from an Apex business. So he turned to the Durham Housing Authority. “I thought they would be more accepting,” he says. “And lo and behold …”
DHA also rejected him, even though by that time had had been out of prison for four years.
Situations like Doll’s — hundreds of them — prompted Gudrun Parmer, director of the Criminal Justice Resource Center in Durham, to ask the DHA board of directors to consider relaxing its policy for public housing and Section 8 applicants who’ve been arrested or for ex-offenders. The Criminal Justice Resource Center offers caseworkers and social services — job training, transitional housing, counseling —for people who are re-entering society from prison.
“The national trend to ease the rules, but that hasn’t translated to Durham,” Parmer says.
Nationwide, as sentences expire, the number of inmates being released from prison have increased by 2 percent, according to 2014 figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In North Carolina, that figure is 10 percent. In the last year, President Obama has commuted the sentences of hundreds of certain drugs offenders. That means there is a significant need for housing for ex-offenders re-entering society.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a directive that gave local authorities leeway in accepting ex-offenders into Section 8 or public housing. (Certain offenses are still off-limits: registered sex offenders and people convicted of felony meth distribution charges.)
Parmer’s request coincides with DHA’s plans to open its public housing waiting list this month. The board, which delayed opening the waiting list to further consider the issue, is scheduled to vote on the issue at its May 25 meeting.
Nor should an arrest without a conviction be used to deny someone housing, said board member Bo Glenn, at a meeting last month, in support of the delay. “It could violate the Fair Housing Act. “It puts us in jeopardy for a civil rights complaint.”
However, DHA CEO Dallas Parks, who is retiring next month, resisted changing the policy. One reason is procedural: DHA would have to amend its five-year plan, which requires public hearings, and thus would further delay the opening of the waiting list. “It would be a hardship to delay opening the wait list. We’re down to 200 names on list, and 300 vouchers we want people to give them to. We’re about to run out of people.”
It’s puzzling how DHA could “run out of people,” considering the significant housing shortage for very low-income people — those earning less than $15,000 a year. At a presentation on affordable housing in March, city consultant Karen Lado cited a statistic showing that for every 100 Durham households in that income bracket, there are only 38 rentals.
The second reason not to delay opening the waiting list, Parks said, is security. “We don’t want homeless people. But at Oxford Manor, we had three people shot [in a drive-by].” (Since no suspects have been named, it’s uncertain whether the shooters were Oxford Manor residents.)
There are 40 vacancies at McDougald Terrace, Parks said, because DHA and the Durham Police HEAT team have worked to evict offenders from that housing project. Yet, just last week, a man was shot and killed on Dayton Street; the police haven’t named a suspect, so it’s unknown if he lives at McDougald.
The shooting occurred near Mcdougall and the former Lincoln Apartments complex, which DHA purchased for $10 from a failing nonprofit in 2012. The 150-unit property on 10 acres has been abandoned since. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report, blocks with vacant buildings reported more than three times as many drug calls to police, and twice as many violent calls as blocks without vacant buildings.
Rhega Taylor, then the head of the Housing Choice Voucher division — Section 8 — told the board DHA does review applicants “on a case by case basis, and looks at documentation on severity of crime.” Taylor, who was either fired or resigned earlier this month, said applicants “can refute charges they may have. We give people the opportunity to explain and document in support their situation.”
But as Glenn pointed out, the very existence of regulations that consider arrests may “have a chilling effect on people who want to apply.”
In addition, an arrest is not a conviction. “Our jails are filled with people who don’t belong there,” Glenn said. “These folks would be homeless yet for our help.”
In fact, many ex-offenders are homeless. Doll, who now works for the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham, says not only are there few housing options for ex-offenders, but those that exist are often substandard. One of his clients looked at an apartment that was in such bad shape, Doll says, that he decided to continue living in his car.
Even Doll, who now has been out of prison for six years, would find it difficult to get housing. He rents a house from a private property owner who served on the board of a local nonprofit. “I was ecstatic and relieved,” he says.
HUD also has set guidelines for a “look-back period,” the length of time between the arrest or the release and the request for housing. HUD suggests housing authorities use 12 months as a benchmark for drug-related offenses, and 24 months for violent crimes, and then considering the applicants on a case-by-case basis. DHA looks back as long as five to seven years.
“That’s terribly unfair,” Parmer says. “The longer people are out of the system, the less likely they are to offend. People going through programs should be getting some bonus points for that. They are doing everything right.”
“Housing is a cornerstone of success,” Parmer adds. “Yet a lot of them end up in rooming houses, with just a room and a bed.”
HUD has also suggested local housing authorities implement a pilot program to allow the family of an ex-offender to add him or her to their voucher. DHA currently prohibits this.
“We can’t safeguard ourselves from everything,” Parmer says. “At least give a few people a chance and see.”