University House Tenants Forced to Move 

Tenants of the soon-to-be-renovated building by the Utah campus are struggling to find housing because of criminal records.

click to enlarge JOHN TAYLOR
When the Pioneer Theatre Company, located at the University of Utah, decided in June to purchase and rehabilitate the historic University House at 1310 E. 200 South as lodgings for traveling actors, planners knew the makeover would mean replacing more than a dilapidated interior—it would also mean displacing more than 40 low-income residents. But it’s not the bleak future of the housing recovery that’s really holding these tenants back so much as it is their own criminal pasts. Numerous tenants have come to the house because of its reputation for accommodating tenants with felony convictions, including sex crimes—the University House is currently home to 10 registered sex offenders—but these tenants now face a market where subsidized public housing won’t take them because of a federal rule that restricts renting to those with felony convictions. Most privately owned apartments don’t want them because of their criminal records.

In a small studio apartment at the University House, Norman Haga sits on a mattress on the ground that takes up most of the room, going through applications for apartments and copies of a complaint letter he is preparing to send to the Legislature. Haga, in his 50s, is a three-time convicted burglar, who has been out of jail for the past five years. That record, however, disqualifies him from most subsidized low-income housing with rents comparable to the University House, where tenants pay $400 to $450 per month.

“The poor and mostly disabled men and women of the University House are being kicked into the streets by the Cowboy Partners Inc., a corporation of well-to-do alumni of the University of Utah,” Haga writes in the letter he’s drafted. By fall 2011, the now 42-unit boarding house will be a 21-unit lodging reserved for traveling actors and stagehands to use while performing at nearby Pioneer Theatre. The $3.2 million project is funded by private donations. The theater has raised $2 million for the project from private philanthropic sources, such as longtime theater patrons Peter and Catherine Meldrum, who donated $1.2 million. Peter Meldrum is CEO of Myriad Genetics.

Cowboy Partners, the property development and management company renovating the building has offered tenants two months rent-free, $500 of moving assistance for tenants who leave before Aug. 1 and counseling on available affordable housing to ease the tenants into the rough housing market. The tenants also will receive all of their security deposit back, says Dan Lofgren, CEO of Cowboy Partners.

“We’re not naive about the challenges [tenants] will face,” Lofgren says. “We’ve tried to be as thoughtful as we could about it, but the use of that building was going to change whether it was us or someone else.”

The offer doesn’t console Haga much, who says he and other tenants with criminal pasts would likely need more than two months to find housing they can afford and that will accept them.

“There are some tenants who say, ‘I’m going to stay here until they kick me out, and then live on the street,’ ” Haga says. “Because there’s nothing out there.”

In the cramped apartment sitting on one corner of the mattress is “T,” a registered sex offender, who asked that his name be withheld. T was convicted in 1991 of a second-degree felony of sexual abuse of a child. Nearly 20 years without relapse, T still struggles with the stigma of his crime, citing numerous rejections for apartments because of his conviction.

“They say they want former sex offenders to become members of society again, but then they throw all these roadblocks in our way,” T says. “A lot of people just say ‘to hell with it,’ and commit a crime and go back to prison, where they got a place to sleep and have food every day.”

The fear that ex-cons might be pushed back into crime for the sake of “three hots and a cot”—as Haga describes the minimal guarantees of prison life—are troubling for local housing advocates. Sharon Abegglen, the director of housing for the Salt Lake Community Action Program, says her office has been working with Lofgren to see that the tenants have resources to find housing they can afford and that will accept them. For low-income Utahns with criminal records, however, that doesn’t leave a lot of options. “Frankly, what we tell them is to go to smaller landlords that do not run criminal background checks,” Abegglen says.

When Salt Lake City officially evicted the last tenants of The Regis, a single-room occupancy hotel on State Street in March, the city’s Redevelopment Agency had counted on those units being replaced with 49 new units at the renovated Rio Grande Hotel at 428 W. 300 South, plus the 60 units available at Palmer Court, at 999 S. Main. Both locations, however, include restrictions on sex offenders and individuals with criminal records.

“There’s no replacement housing going up for that population,” Abegglen says. While Abegglen says SLCAP struggles to find housing for indigent tenants with criminal records, she also says SLCAP has its hands full dealing with the demand for housing for all low-income demographics, especially families. Abegglen’s organization regularly helps individuals and families looking for assistance with security deposits for apartments, usually several hundred requests a month. She recalls one time that her organization helped a sex offender with a security deposit, only to have the neighbors complain to the city the next day.

“People are leery, very leery [of sex offenders].” Abegglen says.

Councilman Luke Garrott, whose district include the University House, recognizes that the failure to address this kind of market is bad policy, but he also recognizes a big factor in the debate goes back to federal rules.

“It’s important we don’t stigmatize these people and create a radical, two-tier affordable housing market,” Garrott says. “But federal rules may be causing that to happen.”

Garrott says some of the major workforce housing projects, like the redevelopment of the old State Street SROs by developer Ben Logue, which are designed to create a mix of low- and middle-income units as well as retail outlets, are the only projects viable in the current economy. But the federal tax credits the developer will use come with strings attached that will shut out those with criminal records.

“It seems to me that most of the housing built in Salt Lake right now is using high-density federal tax credits,” Garrott says. “They’re the only people who can get loans.” Federal rules or not, Garrott also recognizes that housing rights for ex-cons and sex offenders is not the most politically popular issue to fight for, which is why discussions of the subject often get left on the backburner.

Meanwhile, residents like Haga and T are attempting to find new homes. For Haga, living on $674 a month of disability pay, he and his wife struggle with rental applications that can cost up to $45 to pay for background checks. T also worries about where he’ll end up, since he is currently finishing up a bachelor’s degree in history at the University of Utah, where he also works.

“They either want to keep me in prison forever or have me sleeping under the viaduct in a cardboard box,” he says.

Eric S. Peterson:

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