Nearly one in three Americans have a criminal record according to the Justice Department. Having a conviction can make it challenging to find housing. The federal government has tried to make it easier.
In 2016, the Department of Housing and Urban Development issued guidelines saying blanket policies of denying all renters with criminal backgrounds might in effect be committing discrimination because of the disproportionally high rates of conviction among people of color. But it’s unclear if those guidelines have made any difference in Charlotte.
Dora Mills lives in a southeast Charlotte house she’s rented for the past five years. But it’s not her name on the lease — it’s her mother's. She says no landlord will rent to her because of her convictions about ten years ago. She served 30 days for drug paraphernalia and eight months for a conviction of false pretenses.
“Basically, I cashed checks that weren’t real checks,” Mills said.
Mills lives in fear her landlord will find out her mother doesn’t live at the home and terminate the lease. She works part time at a motel’s front desk and said she receives disability payments for her bi-polar disorder. It’s enough to cover the rent of some affordable housing units in the area. She almost got one a few months ago.
“I got on the waiting list,” Mills said. “Everything was good, but the criminal record set me kind of apart and they said no. It’s just always the criminal record.”
It’s a story Myra Clark said she hears all the time. She’s the executive director of the Center for Community Transitions in Charlotte. It helps ex-offenders reenter society.
“Our goal is to reduce recidivism and to help people be the best person they can be,” Clark said. “It’s very difficult to do that when they don’t have a home.”
About 26,000 people were released from prisons across the state last year, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. Clark said it hasn’t gotten any easier for them since HUD issued the guidelines three years ago that say blanket policies of denying all renters with criminal backgrounds are discriminatory. She said many of her clients can afford rent but still find themselves, like Mills, being rejected by landlords just because of their background.
“The part that is more difficult is that they will not tell you they’re not going to rent to you, but they will take your application fee,” Clark said.
That's one reason Mills said she stopped applying. She could no longer afford the fees that ranged from $75 to $125. Mills is white, but the challenge of ex-offenders finding housing disproportionally affects African Americans.
In North Carolina, African Americans make up 22 percent of the population, but account for a little more than half of the state’s approximately 36,000 prisoners. A study by the Bureau of Justice Statics last year found that nationwide African Americans are incarcerated at a rate of 3.5 times that of whites. Corine Mack is the president of the Charlotte NAACP.
“If you have people of color disproportionally arrested and incarcerated, clearly they would be the larger group of people who are harmed,” Mack said.
Mack said the guidelines are a good first step, but what would help even more is making a criminal background one of the protected classes under the Fair Housing Act. That would prevent landlords from denying anybody on the basis of their criminal records.
“I think that having clean housing and safe housing is a basic human right for all people,” Mack said.
It’s tough for a lot of people — criminal record or not — to find housing, said Kim Graham who heads the Greater Charlotte Apartment Association.
“We’re in a heavy demand side economy around housing and a very low supply said,” Graham said.
That’s not to say ex-offenders don’t have a tougher time Graham said.
“What we do know is that often folks coming out of incarceration situations are earning less,” Graham said. “And so the potential to pay even the fair market rate for rent in Charlotte is going to be lower.”
Graham said landlords may focus on how much a renter makes and never even look to see if the box about past convictions is checked. Despite that, she said the HUD guidelines are having some impact.
“Probably more than anything, community owners are just being aware that these practices could run the risk of having racial discrimination happen,” Graham said.
In 2017, the Equal Rights Center sued the largest apartment landlord in the country – Tennessee-based Mid-America Apartments – over its blanket policy of denying anyone with a criminal record. Mid-America owns 21 complexes in Mecklenburg County. The company later agreed to drop the policy and individually assess each applicant with a criminal record.
Since the HUD guidelines were issued, no such complaint has originated in Charlotte according to Melissa Baker, the Fair Housing Manager of the city’s Community Relations Committee.
“With fair housing in general and with that particular guidance from HUD specifically, a lot of people just simply don’t know their rights,” Baker said.
That’s true of Dora Mills, the woman renting a home with her mother’s name on the lease.
“If I had to apply somewhere else or went to apply somewhere else and was it denied and was told it was because of my criminal record, I would definitely bring that up,” Mills said.
She’s said not being able to get housing because of her record is almost like a continuation of her prison sentence.
WFAE is taking a year-long look at Charlotte's affordable housing problem through our series, Finding Home. Every Monday in 2019, we’ll have stories that examine the problem, seek solutions, and bring you stories from neighborhoods small and large, both in and outside Charlotte. Don't miss a segment. Sign up for the Best of WFAE weekly newsletter to get the latest Finding Home along with the other most important news of the week.