Dearie Ruth thought that Crestmont Village was the worst her living situation could get. There were bed bugs and rats. There was no hot water for four months at one point. At another, there was no electricity either, because management didn't pay the bill, leaving all the residents in the dark, all their food in the fridge spoiled.
The City of Houston shut down the apartment complex last fall, rescuing residents from the sewage that was coming up through their pipes and flooding bathrooms and the ceilings falling onto kitchen floors, and promised to relocate them. Former mayor Annise Parker even vouched for residents like Ruth who had old felonies still plaguing their background checks, barring them from dozens of apartments across the city. With the city's help, though, Ruth and her two sons were able to start over in November at Southmore Place Apartments in southeast Houston.
But that fresh start was short-lived: A few weeks ago, a fire originating in the apartment next-door destroyed everything Ruth and her teenage sons owned, leaving them with nothing but the clothes they were wearing and whatever they had in their pockets.
Now, Ruth and her sons sleep in a motel, on one twin bed and one double bed. She has reached out to four different apartment complexes so far, but because of two felonies she committed 10 and 18 years ago, she says she has been turned away. This time, the city is not there to vouch for her.
“It's frustrating when you're trying to get ahead, and something always has to bring you back down,” she says.
Greater Houston Fair Housing Director Director Daniel Bustamante said that, for many people in Ruth's situation, sometimes it doesn't matter how old their felony is, what it was, or whether it even resulted in a conviction—they'll still get denied. Often, he said, even if people who have are just returning from a stint behind bars have family who will take them in, they still may live in constant fear of eviction, given the landlord may not know that a person with a record has moved into the apartment. In the past, Bustamante has even met with parole officials from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice who were aware of the problem. “They're concerned about the ability of these people to re-establish their lives, to do so with good housing to support their families,” Bustamante said.
But as of last week, there may finally be a real solution. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, headed by Texan Julian Castro, passed new guidelines ruling that denying someone housing based merely on the fact that he or she has a criminal record, no matter the circumstances, is discriminatory in nature. That's because, as HUD's general counsel, Helen Kanovsky writes, black and Hispanic people are arrested and convicted at disproportionate rates compared to white people The only reason housing providers should be able to use someone's criminal background against them, Kanovsky writes, is if the person may pose a threat to their neighbors' safety. Otherwise, it's a violation of the Fair Housing Act.
“Bald assertions based on generalizations or stereotypes that any individual with an arrest or conviction record poses a greater risk than any individual without such a record are not sufficient” to deny someone housing, she wrote.
The two mistakes that have followed Dearie Ruth throughout her life include writing a bad check for over $2,000 in 2006, and leaving her two young children home alone with her 13-year-old cousin in 1998 while she ran to the store—only for her one-year-old to wander out of the apartment and into the street. She did six months in the county jail for each offense, but said the punishment never really ended. “I feel like I'm still being judged,” she said, “and like I'm not being given a chance. I can never speak my side.”
Over the years, she has lived in various places, but never for long. She has faced a few evictions after not being able to pay rent—her criminal background keeps her from securing well-paying work, too. She has lived with family or friends a few times, but says she no longer asks, not wanting to feel like a burden, and so she has gone to the motel. “They've got their own lives. They've got their own issues," she said. "I can't keep on depending on people to help me out."