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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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“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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