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Ex-Offenders Face Challenges in Finding and Holding Onto Stable Housing

A photo of an eviction notice
Ex-offenders are often overlooked when it comes to eviction and housing displacement.

Tenant advocates have warned that the nation faces a wave of evictions, now that the CARES act and moratoriums against evictions have ended. One overlooked group is especially at risk: tenants who have a criminal history. But few resources exist for this group.

South Street Ministries logo
South Street Ministries logo

When COVID first hit, Lamarr Atchison’s phone blew up. Early morning to late night, he heard from anxious men who’d just gotten out of jail or prison and needed somewhere to stay. They called him because he’d been in the same spot. Atchison is an ex-offender who volunteers with the South Street Ministries recovery and re-entry organization. He knows firsthand how hard it is to find good, stable housing if you’ve committed a crime. But he couldn’t help them.

“One brother used to call me every day. He was like ‘Yo, I want to work. I don’t want to go back to the streets, and I don’t want to live with this woman I have to live with right now.’ You’re dealing with a situation where a man can’t generate an income, has nowhere to live. They were panicking. They were panicking,” he said.

They belong to a group that’s being overlooked as the nation faces a wave of housing displacements due to the end of the CARES Act and moratoriums against evictions. Even in better times, though, men and women who’ve served time face overwhelming obstacles when it comes to finding stable places to stay. One problem simply is the region’s lack of affordable housing.

If you’re poor in Cuyahoga County, housing can eat up most of your income, according to Mark McDermott. He works with Enterprise Community Partners, a development organization promoting affordable housing. 

“In Cuyahoga County, over 30 percent of low-income people are paying more than 50 percent of income on rent or housing. That barrier plus the barrier of having a record,” McDermott said.

Transitional housing offers a place to stay and support services, especially for people in recovery. But those programs aren’t permanent. The Cuyahoga County Metropolitan Housing Authority also sponsors programs for formerly incarcerated, but waitlists are long. McDermott said the county needs about 1,000 units to accommodate ex-offenders. 

A photo of John Petit.
John Petit is an attorney and manages Community Legal Aid's housing team.

Attorney John Petit sees a similar need in Akron’s affordable housing market. Petit manages Community Legal Aid’s housing team. He said many city residents are stuck renting poor housing because discrimination and redlining kept them from buying.

“And so what you’ve done, you’ve kept a certain segment of the population from becoming homeowners. You’ve trapped some people into an environment that’s just not healthy,” he said.

Folks with a criminal offense, however minor, face a stigma that keeps them trapped as well. Anita Hill is a caseworker with Towards Employment. It’s a Cleveland nonprofit that helps people who have been incarcerated find work. Hill said one client lost hundreds in rental application fees because she couldn’t pass background checks. 

“So I have a client who has lost $300 applying for places to live. And her housing application was denied every time. She makes great money; she’s sleeping on a family member’s couch,” she said.

In fact, many ex-offenders end up like Hill’s client. That’s not the best situation, especially for those trying to reform, Atchison said.

“More than we don’t want somebody having to sleep on somebody’s couch, we don’t want men and women trying to figure out what they have to do to live because that's what leads to crime and to the destruction of our community. Or (to) be in the position where they figure no matter how hard I worked … it’ll never be enough for me to get from where I’m at,” he said.

When it comes to federally subsidized housing, guidelines prohibit renting to people who have committed violent crimes, or have sold or distributed drugs. But housing authorities can set their own policies when it comes to approving tenants with other types of crime. These authorities can also determine how far back to investigate an applicant’s criminal history. The time limit usually goes back three years, Petit said. But that can be arbitrary.  

“Often, they don’t even start the clock on that until people have paid off all their fines and court costs. And that can take years,” Petit said. “When you think of it, that shouldn’t have anything to do with keeping you from getting housed.”

Landlords face no restrictions when it comes to background checks. Petit said lack of affordable rentals gives them the upper hand on approving tenants. 

“Now, you have somebody who might have a minor crime, but landlords can be so picky, that those folks end up having to rent from the least desirable landlords in the bad properties that haven’t been maintained,” he said. “So they’re being penalized again because of their background.”

Advocates say it will take a united effort to craft a solution that will help ex-offenders find adequate housing. Until then, they’ll have to depend on relatives, friends, and their wits.