Past felonies hinder housing search
Crestmont’s closure leaves some tenants with few alternatives
It’s been eight years since Dearie Ruth’s most recent felony conviction and 13 years since her first. But Ruth’s two strikes follow her wherever she goes — especially as she searches for a place to live.
Ruth is one of the more than 100 tenants in southeast Houston’s Crestmont Village Apartments whose onetime home will be gone for good at the end of this week when the decaying, dangerous complex closes.
A state district judge ordered the Oct. 30 closure of the property three weeks ago at the urging of the city of Houston, which has been paying bills for Crestmont’s absentee owner, Abraham Vaknin, a slumlord sued by both Houston and Miami after failing to address atrocious living conditions at his properties.
But finding a new affordable home is not simple for Ruth and others like her.
Ruth was able to secure an
apartment by Friday’s deadline. But there’s a reason she and many others ended up at Crestmont in the first place. Properties like Crestmont are among the few that will take tenants who have multiple or recent felonies.
“Half got felonies; half got background,” Ruth, 45, said of her neighbors at Crestmont. Ruth’s own record is for theft involving check fraud in 2007 and a case that followed a 1997 encounter with Child Protective Services. She served six months for both offenses.
“That’s why people wound up here. They don’t care; they (the landlords) just want money,” she said.
Having a criminal record can be a major obstacle for felons trying to jump-start their lives in Houston and elsewhere. These barriers keep applicants with records from getting into public housing as well as private, though some cities like New Orleans are trying to lower these obstacles by making sure a record doesn’t automatically keep an applicant out of public housing.
Talk of Crestmont’s closure has circulated among residents and community activists for several weeks now, starting in early September when the property was placed in temporary receivership.
Residents have been provided with a few weeks’ notice and city assistance to find new living conditions that won’t be plagued by raw sewage in the yard, open electrical boxes and utilities outages lasting days at a time.
Ruth is one of dozens of Crestmont residents who found this month’s search for new housing difficult to navigate. Even with a team of community activists printing out pages of Google searches for “apartments that rent to felony convictions” and calling every day to check for new vacancies, many tenants still find their options severely limited.
Most landlords and Realtors who control access to decent, affordable housing require background checks or use a private tenant rating system to screen against tenants with records of felonies or evictions, according to affordable housing advocate John Henneberger.
“You have to search more and you have to search harder,” Henneberger said. “It’s not 10 times harder; it’s not 20 times harder; it’s 100 times harder to find a place that’s decent and affordable if you have a felony conviction.”
Andy Teas, a vice president at the Houston Apartment Association, said policies like these are a matter of responsibility owners feel to their other residents to know about and prevent criminal activity.
Individual owners have the right to accept and reject applications as they choose, but the lack of alternatives for tenants who do not meet owners’ standards causes many former offenders to end up at places like Crestmont. Some apartments where Ruth applied took her application fee and never got back to her, she said.
“It’s been hard. It’s made me feel I have to take stuff like this,” Ruth said. “I feel like I did my time and I’m still doing my time.”
Volunteers helping residents relocate tried every house, apartment or condominium in the surrounding 10 miles, said community activist Sandra Hines. Most residents want to stay in the southeast area, but Hines has sent tenants as far as Greenspoint in north Houston.
At the hearing that decided the fate of Crestmont on Oct. 8, Melody Barr, a city manager for public services, housing and community development, estimated that residents of about 20 units wouldn’t be able to secure housing by the judge’s Friday deadline and that they might have to turn to the Star of Hope shelter for the homeless. According to William-Paul Thomas, who has been acting as a liaison from the mayor’s office, that number at this point is closer to five.
After Friday, the apartments’ receiver, Gerald Womack, will move to evict any remaining residents, although Thomas says he is “cautiously optimistic” there wont be a need for this action. The city then will be authorized to raze the property.
Although Ruth was able to find housing by this week’s deadline, it’s not what she would have liked. Worried about her record, she agreed to the first option available at Southmore Place Apartments in southeast Houston. She’s living in a two-bedroom apartment with her 15- and 17-year-old sons. The rent is $750, the same as Crestmont, but doesn’t include utilities, which is causing some financial strain.
“I’m just settling,” she said. “They all say no felonies.”
“Stuff you did in the past, that’s the past,” she added. “If you got a background or not, you shouldn’t settle for this.”