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November 12, 2014 News » Cover Story

Jailhouse Roundabout 

Some Good Landlord programs leave ex-convicts with no where to go except back to prison

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About a year ago, Toshiba Richards experienced what she now calls a blessing, though she didn't recognize it as such at the time. In the grips of a methamphetamine addiction, Richards had been on the run for months, with multiple warrants out for her arrest, and had decided she would not go back behind bars—at least not for long. She kept a bottle of painkillers with her, and she had a plan for them.

"I was carrying them in my pocket the whole time I was on the run," Richards says. "My plan was that when [the police] picked me up, I would pop the pills, and when they booked me into jail, I would go to sleep and not wake up."

But she didn't have her pills when she finally was arrested—and that was the miracle that brought forth the unusual blessing of time in prison.

The eight-month spell of sobriety gave her time to learn about herself and her addiction, and account for the destruction in her past: struggles in her marriage; the loss of her children, taken into custody by the Utah Department of Child & Family Services; the dwindling respect and love from family, friends and herself.

For Richards, corrections did what it's supposed to. It put her on a different path and, now out of the system, Richards lives a new life in a simple apartment with secondhand furniture provided by a local LDS bishop. Her small coffee table holds scriptures and a copy of How Strong Women Pray, and she attends LDS, Protestant and Impact religious services, which she discovered while in prison.

But she's still paying debts both emotional and tangible for her time as an addict. She started using when she was 16, she says, after being kicked out of a chaotic and dysfunctional home. From there, meth became a way for her to lose weight, party and fit in, until it took everything, including her four children, three of whom she hasn't seen in eight years.

Richards works every day to pick up the pieces, which she says wouldn't even be possible without a major lifeline: housing.

Though it's generally considered a basic necessity, a place to live is out of reach for many Utahns, even those who have the means to pay deposits and rents. Richards is originally from Ogden, but could find no housing there because of the city's Good Landlord program.

Ogden is one of many Utah cities that have Good Landlord programs, which offer discounts to landlords who agree to certain conditions, such as annual training and, often, rejecting applicants with criminal records within the past four years. Good Landlord programs vary from city to city, but a state law sets the general parameters—such as that no city may discriminate against individuals with criminal convictions older than four years.

City Weekly received a non-comprehensive list of Utah cities with Good Landlord programs from the Utah Apartment Association and, after examining the ordinances, found that 11 of 13 cities' programs restrict landlords from renting to tenants with recent criminal records.

Those who are shut out of Good Landlord housing are faced with the limited pool of rental units that aren't part of the program. And though it's possible that some of these landlords have opted out of the program in order to give former convicts a break, their rental units are also not subject to city-enforced standards and are more likely to be rundown.

While proponents laud Good Landlord programs for their role in reducing crime, criminal-justice advocates see them as a way that lets cities move ex-convicts from housing to shelters—and from there, back to prison, where they come under the care of taxpayers, who subsidize their incarceration to the tune of roughly $30,000 a year.

Advocates are hopeful about the coming legislative session, however, when criminal-justice reform will be on the lips of many legislators as part of the conversation about relocating the Utah State Prison. Lawmakers will also likely be looking to tweak the state's Good Landlord laws, which govern how cities administer their programs.

Anna Brower, an analyst for the ACLU of Utah, says that so far, the discussion over the law has been a closed-door one, between the Utah League of Cities & Towns and the Utah Apartment Association. But she's hopeful that the discussion will broaden and consider the possibilities of making it so the law doesn't allow for cities to so easily shut out people with criminal records.

"Most people will go back to prison within the first three years, and housing is a huge part to re-entry success," Brower says. And these Good Landlord programs, she says, deny housing "for people during the period when it is absolutely most critical that they access it."

click to enlarge Though it’s generally considered a basic necessity, a place to live is out of reach for many Utahns, even those who have the means to pay deposits and rents. Toshiba Richards is originally from Ogden, but could find no housing there because of the city’s Better Landlord program. - NIKI CHAN
  • Niki Chan
  • Though it’s generally considered a basic necessity, a place to live is out of reach for many Utahns, even those who have the means to pay deposits and rents. Toshiba Richards is originally from Ogden, but could find no housing there because of the city’s Better Landlord program.
Nowhere to Turn
Life after prison comes with daunting challenges: gaps on résumés because of years spent incarcerated; landlords who prefer not to rent to ex-convicts; a lack of support for coping with addictions and mental-health issues; less education; and fewer job skills. It's a stacked deck ready to deal most inmates right back into a life of crime and inevitable arrest and reincarceration.

And according to Shannon Cox, who was an Adult Probations & Parole officer for 20 years, for women, the deck is stacked well before an arrest. It often starts with a pattern of sexual assault—and 1 in 3 women in Utah will experience a sexual assault in their lifetime, Cox says. She estimates that 90 percent of the women in Utah's jails and prisons are victims of sexual assault.

And many female inmates are "in prison for non-violent crimes," Cox says. "They get abused, and then they get addicted. They don't get the care they need, so they start self-medicating, and they stay stuck in the cycle."

Cox herself understands how the trauma of sexual assault can dramatically change the trajectory of a woman's life. She was the victim of an assault while attending Brigham Young University. Her reaction was deciding to become a cop.

"I wasn't going to be a victim anymore," Cox says. "So I figured if I was a cop, nobody would try and hurt me."

Cox says that for many years, her trauma made her a "mean cop," especially to male abusers. But as she progressed in her career, she began to see offenders as people like her, reacting to trauma. And she saw that men often react by lashing violently outward, and women by directing their anger inward—cutting themselves and succumbing to addictions.

"As you survive your own trauma, you see the humanity of the job," Cox says.

Now Cox has her own nonprofit, Journey of Hope, which aids women as they transition out of prison in finding services, housing and other kinds of support to keep them off the street and out of prison. And with so many forces likely to mire a released convict in a downward cycle, Cox says that Good Landlord programs do more harm than good.

"It's a way to keep people stuck," Cox says. "To tax someone that wants to give somebody else a break."

Cox says women are particularly vulnerable when they're released from prison. She makes regular rounds with other advocates, visiting and doing outreach with sex workers in Salt Lake City, and says the overwhelming plea she hears from women is for a place to stay.

"You can hand them a bag that has some hygiene items and a bleach kit in it, but when women say, 'I need to get off the street right now, I can't do this anymore,' and there is a John standing right behind them, and you don't got any place to take them, it leaves a sick feeling in your stomach," Cox says.

Not In My Apartment
The Utah Apartment Association acts as an industry association and lobby for the state's landlords and rental property managers. For the association's head, Paul Smith, the idea of doing everything possible to help ex-convicts find housing is admirable, but mostly at a theoretical level. The other side of the story, he says, is landlords who have to sweat over whether a tenant is paying rent by cooking meth, or neighbors who have to worry about the couple down the hall screaming and fighting at all hours of the night.

"Its a lot more personal to the landlord and the neighbor than the advocates from afar who are trying to help reform the criminal justice system," Smith says.

And it's not just landlords and tenants who favor the Good Landlord programs, but entire cities. Smith points out that cites have reported significant reductions in crime rates since implementing Good Landlord programs.

That being said, Smith adds, all parties—cities, ex-convicts, renters and rentees—will stand to benefit if the state law can be tweaked in some major respects in the 2015 legislative session.

For Smith, the major issue is the price of participation in Good Landlord programs.

The programs are meant to be completely voluntary, allowing property owners the choice between a reasonable discount for participating or a reasonable added cost if they would prefer to rent to whoever they want and forego inspections, training and jumping through other required hoops. In city-code speak, participating landlords receive a discount on the "disproportionate fee" that is generally charged for the added cost of city services like police calls that rental units use far more than, say, residential homes.

But if the price difference is too large, Smith says, it allows cities to economically twist the arms of landlords into participating.

He points out that in Ogden, for example, the owner of a fourplex who chooses to not participate in the Good Landlord program would pay roughly $300 more per year for the four units than if he was in the program. In Salt Lake City, nonparticipating landlords pay $342 per unit, and a fourplex owner would have to cough up $1,388 to opt out of the program.

"That's outrageous," Smith says. "It's an abuse of the program, and those kinds of fees need to be capped."

While Salt Lake City may be catching the most flak from landlords for its high fees, it doesn't restrict landlords from renting to ex-convicts, and simply encourages landlords to run background checks.

It's not required under the state Good Landlord law that cities bar landlords in the program from renting to ex-convicts, but the law does allow them to restrict landlords from renting to individuals who've had criminal convictions within the past four years.

Smith believes the state law could be changed to reduce that time restriction from four to three years, a move that might encourage advocates. But he expects that there will be resistance.

"Ogden won't like that," Smith says. "They have a disproportionate number of ex-convicts, and they're probably toughest on the [renting to ex-convicts] rule in their program."

Untitled Document
“You have to have emotional and physical safety in order to be able to feel emotionally and physically safe enough to overcome mental-health issues, addiction issues. You’re not going to do that homeless.” - —Shannon Cox, a former Adult Probations & Parole officer
  • “You have to have emotional and physical safety in order to be able to feel emotionally and physically safe enough to overcome mental-health issues, addiction issues. You’re not going to do that homeless.” —Shannon Cox, a former Adult Probations & Parole officer

O-Town Blues
Ogden led the way for Utah cities in 2004 when it created its Better Landlord program, which draws a sharp line against renting to ex-convicts. Ogden requires background checks and prohibits renting to individuals convicted of most felonies and other crimes within the past four years. If a police report or a complaint makes its way to the city and staff discover that a landlord rented to an ex-convict or failed to run a background check, then the landlord is kicked out of the program and forced to pay the difference in fees for being non-compliant.

The city stands out as the least forgiving when it comes to convicts, but its capacity for forgiveness has perhaps waned over decades of residents dealing with some of the highest crime rates in the entire state. In the post-war years, Ogden's housing offered very low rents, with out-of-state slumlords neglecting to screen tenants. As a railroad town, Ogden also attracted a more transient population of newcomers lacking strong family or other ties to the communities.

This reputation was only exacerbated by high-profile crimes like the 1974 Hi-Fi Murders, where the robbery of a home-audio store escalated when the suspects tied down five victims and forced them to drink drain cleaner. Only two of the victims survived, one of whom also endured a gunshot to the head and a pen being stomped into his ear.

A case study developed by Ogden's Better Landlord Program says that the combination of these factors caused residents and businesses to flee the city, stalling the local economy and depressing real-estate values. "As crime increased, many good citizens left for the suburbs or other cities, leaving their properties to become rentals or to even sit vacant," the report states.

According to figures from the Department of Corrections, 37 percent of the state's current offenders were convicted in Salt Lake County. Weber County accounts for 16 percent, and Davis County, which sits between the two counties, accounts for 8 percent—meaning that 60 percent of all Utah inmates were convicted in these three counties, a 65-mile span.

Ogden's Northern Utah Community Correctional Center, a halfway house with 154 beds, is also the second largest halfway house in the state. But the inmates leaving the prison and returning home to Ogden find a barrier in the city's Good Landlord program. According to records from Ogden City, 86.74 percent of the city's rental units participate in the program. With just 1,487 units in the city not restricted from being rented to former convicts, it's difficult for individuals to find housing in their hometown, close to family and friends who can help them reintegrate into society.

Though Ogden landlords aren't hit with as heavy a fine for not participating in the Good Landlord program, Greg Scothern, who oversees the Good Landlord program for Ogden, says that there are a number of property owners in Ogden who own hundreds of units, and those owners save $10,000 to $14,000 a year by participating in the Good Landlord program.

"It's a huge savings," Scothern says.

But he stresses that it's a voluntary program, and that it's not burdensome for convicts from O-town to live in a nearby community.

"The reality is, this is just Ogden City," Scothern says. "There are within a 10 minute's drive a dozen other communities that don't have a Good Landlord program."

But multiple communities adjacent to Ogden also have programs that are equally restrictive when it comes to renting to people with criminal convictions.

In Washington Terrace, just south of Ogden, only 68 of 771 rental units aren't under the city's program, according to data obtained in an open-records request. In Roy, west of Ogden, 71 percent of landlords are in the city's Good Landlord program. And less than 15 minutes south, Clearfield—the second most populous city in the Ogden-Clearfield Metropolitan area—has just 161 out of 3,171 rental units not covered in the city's program, which explicitly prevents renting to individuals with not just felonies but with "any" conviction for crimes dealing with drugs, alcohol or threats to persons and property within the past three years.

The way Good Landlord programs limit housing options also shift the odds so that available housing often holds numerous felons and ex-convicts, providing a less-than-ideal environment for former inmates trying to better themselves.

Lisa, who asked that her real name be withheld, understands the pitfalls of addiction, incarceration and recovery. Over her lifetime, Lisa has been to prison eight times for a variety of theft and drug-possession charges. Two years ago when she tried to find housing, she was staying at a sober house and doing well with her addiction recovery.

Then she learned that her daughter had been sent to prison, and she was forced to find housing that would accept her and her grandchildren while their mother served her sentence. Good Landlord programs barred her at every turn until she found an apartment complex in Salt Lake County that would rent to ex-convicts—lots of them, despite the fact that felons are not supposed to live in close proximity to other felons.

"Every corner I turned, someone from prison was there," Lisa says. She endured constant temptations while struggling to find a new job and arrange day care for her grandkids. Eventually she succumbed and relapsed into her addiction.

Recovered now, Lisa is still dismayed by how the Good Landlord programs end up herding ex-convicts into the same housing complexes.

"You got to have a chance somewhere where you don't have to worry about taking the garbage out and running into someone selling crystal," Lisa says.

Lisa shares her apartment with another daughter and her daughter's children, as well as her boyfriend and his son Jesse, who also asked that his real name not be published. When Jesse was transitioning out of prison in Ogden's Northern Utah Community Correctional Center, he says, staff provided him and other men their with the phone number of one landlord in the city who would rent to felons.

He says he understands that there's a debt that felons pay in prison and have to make amends for on the outside, but adds that people don't understand the stress it places on the family of those incarcerated who have to endure the same trying environments.

Lisa recalls her granddaughter once stepping on a needle when they went out to get mail.

"The Good Landlord Act don't just affect us," Jesse says. "You think because we're felons we don't got kids, we don't got moms, we don't got relatives?"

A Balancing Act
But for Ogden itself, the program has paid off. A report of the program's first five years shows that between 2004 and 2009, the city's crime dropped by 22.78 percent—almost double the decline of the national average—property values and taxes increased, and fewer city resources were used.

Ogden's landlord policies may also be leading the state in another way that does bring relief to both former inmates and advocates. A city variance allows ex-convicts to get into Good Landlord housing so long as they are also under case management through Weber Human Services for their substance abuse or mental-health issues—though they could still be evicted from the housing like any other tenant.

Individuals who graduate from the program after two years of supervision can access Good Landlord housing even if their conviction is less than four years behind them. Scothern estimates that there are dozens currently in the program, and says he has heard of only one individual who did not graduate.

"If we have people coming out, we want to give them the second-chance program to get them back into being productive members of society," Scothern says.

Cox says the best approach to helping ex-convicts reintegrate into society is similar to the approach the state has used in its recent battles to curb chronic homelessness: housing first.

"You have to have emotional and physical safety in order to be able to feel emotionally and physically safe enough to overcome mental-health issues, addiction issues," Cox says. "You're not going to do that homeless."

Lloyd Pendleton works as the state's homeless coordinator for the Utah Department of Workforce Services. In his more than two decades of work in the LDS Church's Welfare Services program, Pendleton has also been loaned out to help organizations like the Road Home and the Utah Food Bank, before those organizations even had those names. Since 2004, he's been tasked with helping bring down the rate of Utah's chronic homeless—those individuals with the most problematic histories of addiction and mental-health issues. Through a series of grants and pilot programs, Pendleton has helped bring Utah's chronic homeless population down from 14 percent as a percent of the total homeless population in 2005 to a little over 4 percent in 2014.

The next project, he says, is a pilot program funded by the Department of Corrections that will specifically help women transitioning out of prison by providing assistance to cover the cost of rent in various cities in the state. Pendleton says the pilot will coordinate with landlords and, through the help of the Utah Apartment Association, will also work with cities to develop variances like Ogden's that will allow women to stay in Good Landlord rentals as long as they are being supervised by case managers or mentors.

And while Pendleton has put in decades of work helping the most vulnerable populations in the state, he's also served on a planning commission in city government and understands the tightrope that cities walk when trying to both provide second chances and protect the safety of all their residents. Experimenting with variances is a way cities can compromise on the issue of housing for people with criminal records, he says.

"There are solutions to meet both needs," Pendleton says.

While advocates eagerly wait to see what legislative reforms the Utah Apartment Association and the League of Cities & Towns will propose in the next session, other opportunities are emerging to help keep ex-convicts from being stuck in the quagmire of recidivism.

With the state pushing more and more for the relocation of the Utah State Prison in Draper so that the prime real estate underneath can be developed, a unique, perhaps once-in-a-generation opportunity is also crystallizing to enact major criminal-justice reform in the state.

At a recent meeting of the Utah Prison Relocation Commission, Ron Gordon, director of the Utah Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice, told legislators that without immediate reform, Utah's prison population will grow by 37 percent in the next 20 years.

He did give some good news: 97 percent of that growth could be contained if the Legislature will address an aggressive slate of reforms.

But the reforms will not be slam-dunk bills, and include controversial proposals such as reducing drug possessions from felonies to Class A misdemeanors in order to keep addicts out of prison. Though Gordon didn't address the Good Landlord issue, he also called for more aggressive funding of community-treatment resources for mental-health and addiction services, the kinds of services that could help cities that might be looking to use variances like Ogden's to bring risky ex-convicts into Good Landlord rentals so long as they have case managers and other support.

While some legislators on the commission questioned how much the 2015 session could address, Gordon stressed the urgency of filling the void of services outside the prison.

"If we're going to have prison time avoided right now, then we need treatment and community resources—right now," Gordon said.

The Pew Trust, which has been working closely with Gordon and the CCJJ, did deliver more good news following the commission's meeting. While the cost of relocating and expanding the prison with beds to accommodate future growth has been given an estimated price tag of $1 billion, more than half of that cost—$542 million—is linked solely to the projected growth in the prison's population.

While policymakers debate the future of criminal justice, those affected by the system continue to fight to get out from under their criminal pasts.

For Richards, her history is her history, and she understands that redemption is supposed to be hard.

"I failed as a mother and at times, I failed as a wife, and I failed at life, but I got another chance," Richards says. "And I know no matter what, my kids are going to find me one day and I'm not going to be some junkie laying in a gutter."

Richards struggles to pay her rent even with disability for mental-health issues like depression, hallucinations and drug dependency. She has to pay more for her rent than other tenants and can only work part-time. Despite everything, Richards has an easy laugh and an infectious smile, but her good humor can be suddenly dampened when she considers everything she has to face.

"I'm grateful I'm not in prison and have the opportunity to start my life over," Richards says, before quietly adding, "But sometimes I just wish it was a lot easier."

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