Durham News

Durham Housing Authority reconsiders ex-offenders

Bo Glenn, Durham Housing Authority board member
Bo Glenn, Durham Housing Authority board member

Drew Doll had been living in transitional housing in Durham for four years when he finally found a nice apartment he could afford.

He had everything he needed to get it: money to pay the application fee and deposit. After applying for 137 jobs, he said, on the 138th try he was hired at a fast-food place and earning enough to make the monthly rent.

But the property manager turned him down.

“I asked myself, ‘Why in the world did I get rejected?’” Doll said.

The apartment complex would not accept ex-offenders, even those convicted of non-violent crimes. Doll, a former accountant, was released from prison in 2010 after serving four years for embezzling $250,000 from an Apex business.

So he turned to the Durham Housing Authority. “I thought they would be more accepting,” he said. “And lo and behold.”

DHA also rejected him.

Prompted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the DHA board of directors recently voted to clarify the policy for people who have been arrested who apply for housing or Section 8 vouchers.

New language on the DHA website will specify that prior arrests without a conviction do not constitute proof of past unlawful conduct. An arrest alone will not prevent someone from applying or receiving assistance. This coincides with DHA’s plans to open its Section 8 waiting list this summer.

Applicants with felony convictions will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. And a conviction alone might not disqualify someone from housing or the federal housing subsidy program. “We must look at the nature of it,” said board member Bo Glenn, accounting for mitigating circumstances such as the applicant receiving drug treatment.

An estimated one in three American adults have some type of criminal record, according to HUD. Since 2004, roughly 650,000 people have been released annually from federal and state prisons; 95 percent of all current inmates will eventually be released. Because these people also have a hard time finding a job, it is also difficult for them people to secure affordable housing.

Gudrun Parmer, director of the Criminal Justice Resource Center in Durham, asked the DHA board to consider relaxing its policy for public housing and Section 8 applicants who’ve been arrested or who are ex-offenders. The Criminal Justice Resource Center offers job training, transitional housing and counseling for those re-entering society from prison.

“The national trend is to ease the rules, but that hasn’t translated to Durham,” Parmer said.

Since last November, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and its Office of General Counsel have issued guidelines that give local authorities leeway in accepting ex-offenders into Section 8 or public housing. (Certain offenses are still off-limits: registered sex offenders and people convicted of felony methamphetamine distribution charges.)

Housing is a cornerstone of success. Yet a lot of them end up in rooming houses, with just a room and a bed.

Gudrun Parmer, Criminal Justice Resource Center

Rhega Taylor, who until recently, was the head of the Housing Choice Voucher division – Section 8 – told the board that DHA does review applicants “on a case by case basis, and looks at documentation on severity of crime.” Applicants “can refute charges they may have,” Taylor said. “We give people the opportunity to explain and document in support their situation.”

But as Glenn pointed out, an arrest is not a conviction. “Our jails are filled with people who don’t belong there,” Glenn said. “These folks would be homeless yet for our help.”

In fact, many ex-offenders are homeless. Doll, who now works for the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham, says not only are there few housing options for ex-offenders, but those that exist are often substandard. One of his clients looked at an apartment that was in such bad shape, Doll said, that he decided to continue living in his car.

Even Doll, who now has been out of prison for six years, would find it difficult to get housing. He rents a house from a private property owner who served on the board of a local nonprofit. “I was ecstatic and relieved,” he said.

“Housing is a cornerstone of success,” Parmer adds. “Yet a lot of them end up in rooming houses, with just a room and a bed.”

The HUD guidance noted that the “difficulties in reintegrating into the community increase the risk of homelessness for released prisoners, and homelessness in turn increases the risk of subsequent re-incarceration.”

HUD also has set guidelines for a “look-back period,” the length of time between the arrest or the release and the request for housing. HUD suggests housing authorities use 12 months as a benchmark for drug-related offenses, and 24 months for violent crimes, and then consider applicants on a case-by-case basis. DHA can look back as long as five to seven years.

“That’s terribly unfair,” Parmer said. “The longer people are out of the system, the less likely they are to offend. People going through programs should be getting some bonus points for that. They are doing everything right.”

Sorg: lrsrog@gmail.com