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People with criminal records are often locked out of Austin’s housing market

Thursday, October 5, 2017 by Syeda Hasan

After almost a year of searching, Annette Price is settling into her new apartment in North Central Austin. She lives alone in the one-bedroom unit with her dog, Candy. But Price doesn’t totally feel at home.

This apartment complex is one of the few places in the city where the 52-year-old could get approved for housing, because about 30 years ago, she was convicted of murder.

It was 1985 in Zion, Illinois, a small city about an hour north of Chicago. Price was four months pregnant. She was in a car with a man named Gabriel Perez Jr. who she said was a friend of her boyfriend at the time.

“So, I was taking him back to where my boyfriend was, but he had things on his mind that I wasn’t aware of,” Price said. “He wanted to have sex. I didn’t want to have sex. I had sex with him in order for him to take me back to my boyfriend.”

The general order of events is backed up by police reports at the time.

Price said she thought Perez would let her go after that.

“He was telling me that I couldn’t leave, and I wasn’t going to see my family and friends anymore, so then I got scared,” she said. “And I did have a knife, and so I waved my knife at him, thinking if I scare him, then he’ll let me out of the car.”

Price said she and Perez began arguing and things got physical.

“In the midst of our fighting, I stabbed him,” she said. “I didn’t know how many times I stabbed him. Eventually I got out of the car and he drove away, and so I went the route that we came because I (knew) my boyfriend was over there.”

Price said she and her boyfriend walked around looking for a police officer to report what had happened. She said they eventually found some officers at a nearby hot dog stand.

“The police knew who I was when I approached them at the hot dog stand, because I left my purse in the car,” she said. “They saw that my clothes were ripped off. I was beat up and bloody, but they didn’t care about any of that stuff, so I went to jail and then I end up getting charged with a murder.”

Perez died from the knife wounds. Prosecutors argued that it wasn’t self-defense. Price was in her 20s when she was sentenced to 40 years in prison. She gave birth while she was incarcerated. Price spent three days in the hospital with her newborn daughter before her sister came and took the baby home and Price went back to prison.

“From day three, she knows my sister as her mom,” Price said. “My sister raised her as ‘mom,’ and she still calls my sister ‘mom.’”

Price was eventually released on probation. She moved to Austin in the late 2000s and got a job working as a secretary. The company didn’t look into her criminal history. Eventually, Price bought a house in Manor and continued to get promoted at work.

“I was there for about three and a half years, worked my way up, and management changed,” she says. “When management changed, I lost my job because they did a background check on everybody.”

She got by with her savings at first, but after a couple years, Price had to give up her house and move in with her sister, who also lives in Austin. She started searching for a home all over again, but she was repeatedly denied housing because of her criminal history.

“Even though my conviction at that time was almost 30 years old, I was still being rejected,” she said. “Most of the apartment applications, they had on there, ‘if you’ve ever had a conviction.’”

By some estimates, about one in three American adults has some type of criminal record. That can include anything from an arrest that never led to a conviction to petty crimes and violent offenses. When it comes to housing, many landlords simply refuse to rent to those people. Price enlisted the help of professionals.

Ingrid Evens is the assistant manager at A+ Apartment Locators, a company that helped Price find her current apartment. They have a database of properties and management companies, including places that will house people with criminal backgrounds. Evens said their criteria usually depend on the nature of the crime.

“An assault is pretty much impossible to work with,” Evens said. “Any sex offenses, we can’t help them. We have to send them away.”

Evens said most places she works with have a fairly standard “look-back period.” The term refers to how far back a landlord will look into an applicant’s history when considering whether to approve them.

“For a felony, it’s 10 years,” she said. “For a misdemeanor, it’s five years, but again, like I said, it depends on what it is.”

Others consider an applicant’s entire criminal history and will turn people away if they have any kind of record. Federal officials say those kinds of blanket policies may violate the federal Fair Housing Act, because the practice is likely to have a disproportionate impact on African-Americans and Hispanics. But researchers say many property managers don’t seem to understand those legal obligations.

Bree Williams is the housing chair for the Austin/Travis County Reentry Roundtable.

“There’s not anyone dictating to properties how they’re going to screen applicants in terms of criminal background,” Williams said.

Her group surveyed affordable housing properties in the Austin area on their criminal screening practices. In a report released last year, the group found that 40 percent had vague or incomplete standards.

“And only one of those properties posted that screening criteria on their website, so there was a huge accessibility issue as well,” she said.

Along with more transparency, the group is advocating for more properties to provide some sort of appeals process. Less than 20 percent of the properties surveyed offer that option.

“We see the value in the applicant being able to essentially tell more of the story rather than just what the report is saying, and that can then inform a more fair decision around that risk assessment,” Williams said.

The reentry roundtable is working to create a screening guide for landlords, which it plans to release in the coming months. Earlier this year, the group hired Price as an advocacy fellow. She’s helping craft those guidelines. Price hopes to show people that having a criminal record is more common than they think.

“That neighbor that you have that you make brownies with, that you attend PTA meetings with, they may have a conviction that you’re unaware of,” she said.

Price said she’ll always feel sorry for having ended someone’s life. But she said once people have served their time, they just want to move forward, including finding a place to live. And, she said, no one wants to be defined by the worst moment of their life.

“We are all humans,” she said. “We all make mistakes, and I guarantee you, everybody has a secret that they haven’t shared, and just because my secret is out in public, that doesn’t mean I’m less than you are.”

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo: Annette Price was turned away from several apartments in Austin because of a decades-old criminal conviction. By Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT News.

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