How Austin’s Housing Market Locks Out People With Criminal Records

Oct 5, 2017
Originally published on October 9, 2017 1:19 pm

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 she says she doesn’t feel completely at home.

Her apartment complex is one of the few places in Austin 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, Ill., a small city about an hour north of Chicago. Price, who was four months pregnant, was in a car with a friend of her boyfriend named Gabriel Perez Jr.

Price says Perez had "things on his mind that [she] wasn’t aware of.”

“He wanted to have sex. I didn’t want to have sex," she says. "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.

Price says she thought Perez would let her out of the car 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 says. “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 says she and Perez began arguing and things got physical.

“In the midst of our fighting, I stabbed him,” she says. “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 says she and her boyfriend walked around looking for a police officer to report what had happened. She says 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 says. "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, and prosecutors argued 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, and so they’re both here now in Austin,” Price says. “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 on savings at first, but after a couple years, Price had to give up her house and move in with her sister. 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 says. “Most of the apartment applications, they had on there, ‘If you’ve ever had a conviction.”

About one in three American adults has some type of criminal record, according to an analysis by the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that focuses on criminal justice reform. Records 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. So, Price enlisted the help of professionals, A+ Apartment Locators.

The company has a database of properties and management companies that includes listings that will house people with criminal backgrounds. Ingrid Evens, the firm's assistant manager, says their criteria usually depend on the nature of the crime.

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

Evens says most places she works with have a fairly standard “look-back period,” the length of time a landlord will look into an applicant’s history when considering whether to approve them.

“For a felony, it’s 10 years,” she says. “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-American and Hispanic people. But researchers and advocates say many property managers don’t seem to understand those legal obligations.

“There’s not anyone dictating to properties how they’re going to screen applicants in terms of criminal background,” says Bree Williams, housing chair for the Austin/Travis County Reentry Roundtable, an advocacy group that works to secure housing for those with criminal records. 

The group surveyed affordable housing properties in the Austin area on their criminal screening practices. In a report released last year, they 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,” Williams says.

Along with more transparency, the group is advocating for more properties to provide some sort of appeals process. Fewer 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 says.

The Reentry Roundtable is working to create a screening guide for landlords, which they plan to release in the coming months. Earlier this year, the group hired Annette Price as an advocacy fellow. She’s helping craft those guidelines and hopes to show people that having a criminal record is more common than they may 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 says.

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

“We are all humans,” she says. “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.”

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