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Panel looks into dilemma of finding housing for ex-cons

Thursday, August 30, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

The Community Development Commission is about to tackle one of the toughest, yet most-pressing issues in Austin’s rental market today: where to put ex-offenders.


The addition of permanent supportive housing units pushes the issue to the forefront. The challenge was finding residential housing developments that will accept people with a record of criminal behavior, Betsy Spencer, director of Neighborhood Housing and Community Development, explained at the board’s most recent meeting.


“One of the barriers that we have come across is that we can build units, we can create units, we can provide for units, but we can’t get folks into those units with a criminal background,” Spencer said. “We need to start a discussion of what would be an acceptable policy, to be able to utilize screening individuals, and not just the homeless, and how do we provide for the safety of everyone.”


What followed was a frank discussion with Kathy Stark of the Austin Tenants Council and Darla Gay of the Austin/Travis County Reentry Roundtable.


Stark, who deals with the toughest housing cases in the city every day, said the issue of criminal backgrounds has become a significant one. Occupancy rates in Austin apartments are now hovering at 95 percent to 97 percent. Apartments, especially those with high demand, take a pass on those with a criminal background.


“At a lot of apartment complexes, the policy is not if you’re convicted. It’s now become if you’re arrested, so that is going to hurt people even more so,” Stark said. “Even if you were arrested for a DWI, but you were never convicted, they’re just not going to rent to you. In the State of Texas, apartments can set up their criteria for rentals: You need to have this type of income, this type of credit and no criminal background.”


As occupancy rates soar, those with even a minor criminal history are being squeezed out of the rental market. Stark can only count three or four in the city that will even consider someone with a criminal history, including the infamous Wood Ridge Apartments, which has been cited for hundreds of city code violations.


“People with a criminal background can’t get housing except for three or four places in town, and guess who’s living there?” Stark asked. “All the people in the city with a criminal background.”


Right now someone could qualify to purchase a home quicker than he or she might qualify to rent at multi-unit properties in Austin, Stark said.


“I had one client who came in to our office, had a daughter and a stable job, but had a food stamp fraud conviction that was 17 years old,” Stark said. “She couldn’t get an apartment. That type of person is not a threat in the community.”


Nobody wants a child molester in an apartment complex with two- and three-bedroom units, Stark said. That’s not a reasonable policy. But maybe that person should be cleared for single-room occupancy properties, whether it’s a for-profit property or a property owned or financed by the city.


“We did a survey of all the for-profit apartment complexes in town,” Stark said. “Except for a few on North Lamar and Riverside and some in South Austin, 95 percent of them do not accept Section 8,” which is the federal program to provide housing assistance for poor people, the elderly and the disabled.


That means people who are getting rental assistance from the city are not finding places to live, Stark said. Add that to the criminal background requirements and the task becomes almost impossible. People with Section 8 vouchers are losing them because they can’t find housing anywhere in the city.


The Reentry Roundtable is struggling to find placements for men and women coming out of jail. Their families, if they live in subsidized housing, have two choices: either live apart or move because criminal convictions are not allowed.


Gay suggested a more effective appeals process and a shorter “look back” policy for criminal charges. For the Reentry Roundtable, in particular, getting a person leaving jail back into a stable situation as soon as possible is critical to avoid another offense and another return to jail.


“When somebody is homeless, going through a six-week appeals process, it’s likely you’ll lose them,” Gay said. “They run into a barrier and so they run away.”


Ann Howard of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), a nonprofit working on strategies to end homelessness in Austin and Travis County, used two interns this summer to contact cities around the country about how they deal with both re-entry issues and criminal background checks.


Salt Lake City, Utah, for instance, is known for working closely with those leaving prison and trying to find places to live. And Portland, Ore., has developed a matrix tool that sorts people by criminal background. Once the housing authority agrees to stand behind a client, it agrees to assume the cost for evictions.


A number of the commissioners expressed concerns that so much of the burden for those with a criminal background was being shifted to the nonprofit sector rather than shared with the for-profit apartment community.


“It seems to me there are ways to be more objective about this. It seems like a lot of the resources are out there,” Commission Vice Chair Karen Paup said. “Maybe, if we can develop a good policy, a totally private apartment complex might be willing to take Section 8 vouchers.”


Nonprofit apartment complexes don’t have enough units to house all the people who have criminal backgrounds, Spencer agreed. The ultimate solution will have to be a broader outreach effort. Commissioner Myron Love, who has a background working with multi-family communities, said property managers will have to be a key stakeholder in any future discussion.


CDC is expected to draft a letter of support for the process of developing more reasonable screening policies for those with criminal backgrounds for both the nonprofit and the for-profit apartment sectors.

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