‘I still couldn’t find a place to lay my head’: How to find a job and housing with a criminal record — and why it’s so hard
MarketWatch | July 26, 2023 | By Emma Ockerman
An estimated 78 million people in the U.S. have a criminal record, restricting their employment and housing opportunities long after an arrest or conviction.
Matthew Charles had been President Donald Trump’s special guest at the 2019 State of the Union address. He’d met with state governors and members of Congress. He’d been featured in national media outlets for his newfound freedom, faith and resilience.
But for the life of him, he couldn’t become a renter in Nashville, Tenn.
That’s because Charles, the first person to be released after the bipartisan First Step Act was signed into law in late 2018, had a felony record — in addition to nonexistent credit and rental histories, since he’d been incarcerated for 22 years of his 35-year sentence in 1996 on charges related to selling crack cocaine. The criminal-justice and sentencing reform might’ve provided Charles and others in federal prison a path to reentry, but they still had to contend with the systems, policies and stigmas that hold back people with records from jobs and housing.
After staying with a friend, Charles, 56, was eventually able to find a place to live solo with the help of Kim Kardashian, who footed his monthly $1,025 rent until he began paying his own way this year. And he secured employment through FAMM, a group that advocates for criminal-justice reform, where he now serves as state director for Tennessee.
But Charles knows many other people with criminal records aren’t so lucky, and wind up sinking money and time into what can feel like a lost cause. Though it took him three months to find housing — and multiple deposits to landlords who ultimately denied him — others sometimes search even longer. His job hunt came together quickly due to his advocacy work and substantial media attention, but most aren’t afforded the same platform.
“I was going around the country meeting governors, legislators and college students, [and] speaking — and yet I still couldn’t find a place to lay my head,” he said.
Incarceration, fines and government supervision aren’t the only ways people are punished for criminal charges. In the U.S., some 78 million people have a criminal record, by one estimate — enough to potentially hold almost a third of the country’s adult population back from employment and housing opportunities long after an arrest or conviction, and seriously restrict how they earn and spend money.
A 2022 RAND Corporation study, for example, found that about 64% of unemployed men had been arrested at least once for a non-traffic offense by the time they were 35, while about 46% had been convicted. About a third of the more than 50,000 people released from prison in 2010 were unable to find any sort of employment by 2014, according to a December 2021 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Those who were employed often wound up in sectors like administrative support and waste-management and remediation services, as well as accommodation and food services, where average hourly earnings tend to be lower than the national average across all sectors.
As for finding a place to live, a separate 2015 study led by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and other organizations revealed that 79% of formerly incarcerated people said they had been denied housing due to their conviction history. Their loved ones were affected, too: 16% said they weren’t able to live with relatives after returning from incarceration due to the risks it posed to their family’s housing security, according to the study.
Even today, Charles worries what will happen if he ever needs to find another place to live. “I would possibly run into the same hurdles that I initially ran into,” he said.
Charles had already gone through the job-search process in 2016, when he was released from prison in error before being sent back to serve the rest of his sentence — a move that drew outrage and widespread media attention. Before he returned to prison, he lived in a halfway house until he could move into shared housing. He was able to find work as a courier through a temp service, which he said is a common path to employment for people with criminal records.
From the archives (April 2022): Opinion: To find scarce workers, don’t be scared to hire those with criminal records
Attitudes toward people involved in the criminal-justice system have relaxed somewhat in recent years: Adults with convictions for cannabis possession, for example, have seen widespread pardons and expungements following the drug’s legalization in many states, and at least 37 states have in some way barred public- or private-sector employers from asking about conviction history at the application stage.
But it can still be difficult for people to prove they’re more than their criminal history. That fact contributes to higher rates of homelessness and joblessness among people with criminal records, and can have negative consequences for their family members, too, advocates say.
Here’s what to consider if you or a loved one has a criminal record and is attempting to access housing or employment:
How will my criminal record affect me?
The point at which you might hit roadblocks due to your criminal record is highly dependent on your local jurisdiction and the job or housing opportunity you’re applying for, Ames Grawert, senior counsel at the Brennan Center’s Justice Program, told MarketWatch.
Many cities and states, for instance, have adopted so-called ban-the-box laws — you can see if your city, county or state is among them here — to prevent employers from asking about criminal records off the bat. Yet even in those states, employers can and will ask about your criminal history, Grawert noted, just at a stage where they’ve potentially invested more time in getting to know you.
“If you don’t live in a state with those laws, you might indeed have to disclose it up front, and that might be a real headwind you have to face in the application process,” Grawert said.
There’s typically more wiggle room for people whose criminal record doesn’t extend past an arrest.
Not all criminal records are created equal, though. Having an arrest record, which may show a person was accused of an offense, rather than a conviction record, which may show a person was found guilty of an offense, makes a “huge difference,” Grawert said. While a conviction could block you from occupational licenses and even the ability to vote in elections in some states, and sometimes has to be disclosed earlier in the process in states without ban-the-box laws, there’s typically more wiggle room for people whose criminal record doesn’t extend past an arrest.
From the archives (September 2022): Airbnb can ban you for having a criminal record. This Pennsylvania councilwoman found out the hard way.
Obtaining housing is a bit trickier. Though some public-housing authorities have also relaxed their rules on tenants with criminal records or are being urged to do so, that lenience doesn’t necessarily translate to private rental housing, where many tenants are likely to land. Renters can face difficulties caused by their record both at the application stage and background-check stage, Grawert said.
That can be scary for people coming out of prison, especially if it means returning to communities that were unsafe for them in the first place, said Carmen Garcia, the executive director of Root & Rebound, an Oakland, Calif.-based reentry advocacy and support group also active in South Carolina. Housing difficulties can also increase the risk of recidivism, or committing a crime again.
Garcia’s own time in federal prison still looms over every housing decision she makes, she said. Even a decade after the end of her incarceration and probation, she feared a background check would thwart her rental applications when she decided to stop living with her daughter and look for her own place about a year ago. Despite her current landlord never asking about her criminal history, the anxiety persists, Garcia said.
“Even if you have a job, that’s not a guarantee that you’ll be able to get an apartment or housing,” Garcia said.
A criminal record doesn’t just affect the person who went to prison, Garcia added — it also impacts their family. For example, parents who are trying to reunify with kids placed in alternative custody after prison may need to secure housing before they can live with their children again. Being unable to find a place to live can delay that process, and sometimes even their child’s ability to visit them, Garcia said.
Garcia’s organization is now advocating for legislation that would make it easier for people with records to access housing. “If we had better support, you can only imagine the great things that we would be able to do,” she said.
If you’re currently incarcerated, leaving incarceration soon, or have a loved one in a similar situation, try to access local resources that can connect you to housing as soon as possible. Also check whether your photo ID is up to date, as that’s often necessary for obtaining housing and employment.
‘Job seekers and workers who may have had criminal records are actually shown to be excellent employees.’— Parisa Fatehi-Weeks, senior director of ESG programs and partnerships at Indeed
Which employers are open to hiring people with criminal records?
Employers have become increasingly accepting of applicants with criminal records, though “outdated background-check processes” can still screen out people who have had contact with the criminal-justice system, said Parisa Fatehi-Weeks, the senior director of ESG programs and partnerships at Indeed.
By broadly rejecting applicants purely for their criminal backgrounds, though, employers are “missing out on nearly a third of the American talent workforce pool,” Fatehi-Weeks said. The global job site and hiring platform has committed to helping 30 million job seekers who face bias and barriers, including those with criminal records, get hired by 2030.
“Job seekers and workers who may have had criminal records are actually shown to be excellent employees,” Fatehi-Weeks added. “In fact, some studies have shown these employees tend to stay longer with their employers compared to other employees — which is a huge issue on the mind of employers when you think about how expensive it is to spend time hiring [and] onboarding, only to lose that talent.”
JPMorgan Chase JPM, +0.60%, which has advocated for New York state’s Clean Slate Act to seal misdemeanor records after three years and felony records after seven, has also “walked the walk,” Grawert said. Its CEO, Jamie Dimon, co-chairs the Second Chance Business Coalition, an advocacy group for companies that want to provide more employment opportunities for people with criminal records, and JPMorgan Chase has said it’s already hired thousands of people with criminal backgrounds.
A full list of coalition members can be found here, but employers on board include McDonald’s MCD, -0.21%, Walmart WMT, +0.36% and Home Depot HD, +1.37%. Indeed is also a member and has publicly supported the Clean Slate Act.
But even when employers are willing to hire workers with criminal records, those workers may lack internet access, necessary skills or job training, or transportation, Fatehi-Weeks noted. Through its Essentials to Work program, Indeed helps such job seekers get a computer and free Lyft LYFT, +5.54% rides to interviews or training sessions in some cities, and can connect people to record-clearing partners in several states.
Should I disclose my criminal record to an employer, even before I’m asked?
That depends on where you’re located, said Courtnie Drigo, a staff attorney at the Legal Action Center, a nonprofit that fights discrimination against people with arrest and conviction records, as well as those who have substance-use disorders or are living with HIV or AIDS.
New York City, for example, has a law barring most employers from asking about a person’s criminal-conviction history until they’ve provided a conditional job offer, meaning there’s no obligation for the applicant to be upfront about their background. Most New York employers also can’t ask about arrests that didn’t end in conviction, according to Drigo.
“Now, once you have a conditional offer and you are asked [about your convictions], there is an expectation of honesty, and then also the employer will run the background check,” Drigo said.
For job seekers applying for jobs at companies or organizations that may be less accepting of their background, there are organizations that guide people with records on how to talk about their history, Drigo said. Her organization also maintains the H.I.R.E. Network, which provides a national clearinghouse for re-entry information.
“We do work with people about how to tell their stories, how to show evidence of rehabilitation, how to frame things,” she added. “There is some work around how you talk about your conviction, and community-based organizations can help with that.”
How do I find a landlord who will rent to me?
Property owners are often able to bar renters based solely on their criminal records, including those of their roommates and family members. And landlords often don’t openly advertise that they’re willing to rent to tenants with a criminal history. Those factors can make it immensely difficult to find a place to live beyond halfway housing after leaving prison.
Though advocates have pushed landlords to drop blanket bans on prospective tenants with criminal histories, and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has warned such policies may violate fair-housing laws, many housing providers continue to deny those renters anyway, said Marie Claire Tran-Leung, a senior staff attorney at the National Housing Law Project.
“There’s been progress made, but there are a number of housing providers out there that still use these kinds of blunt instruments to deny housing,” Tran-Leung said.
For example, some property owners continue to have a broad policy of denying anyone who has a felony-conviction record or a past drug conviction, Tran-Leung said. There can also be restrictions on people living in public housing if they have a criminal record, cutting some tenants off from a crucial resource for low-income people.
Even if they can find a landlord willing to rent to them, renters with criminal records may also lack the good credit history that’s often necessary to sign a lease, Charles noted.
While HUD has “sent a message that public-housing authorities should be giving second chances to people with records and their families,” and announced plans in April to strike down barriers and unnecessary housing denials across public-housing agencies and government-funded housing providers, tenant-screening criteria can still vary on the local level, and there aren’t many federal protections for such renters, Tran-Leung said.
So it’s potentially worth trying to figure out a landlord’s tenant-screening criteria — or which screening company they use — before applying, if that option is available. That can allow tenants to both attempt to correct any inaccuracies promoted by tenant-screening companies, as well as get a sense of what may be used against them, though it can be difficult for renters to access that level of information in the first place.
Policies that deny tenants based on their arrest records, meanwhile, “really raise a red flag of a fair-housing violation,” Tran-Leung said.
The 1968 Fair Housing Act prohibits racial discrimination in the housing market. Because people of color disproportionately face involvement with the criminal-justice system, HUD has also said that blanket bans on people with criminal histories can run afoul of civil-rights law, while, along with other federal agencies, expressing interest in curtailing the tenant screening industry. People who feel they’re being discriminated against can get in touch with their local fair-housing agency and seek information from the National Fair Housing Alliance, Tran-Leung said.
Zillow Z, +0.68%, a listing platform, discloses which third-party criminal background check provider it uses online — CIC — and says it does not consider traffic and vehicle misdemeanors, statutory misdemeanors, non-violent felonies more than seven years old, non-violent misdemeanors more than five years old, and arrests that don’t result in convictions. Excluding certain results is part of an “effort to align with best practices under the Fair Housing Act and other federal law,” the company says.
Still, even if they can find a landlord willing to rent to them, renters with criminal records may also lack the good credit history that’s often necessary to sign a lease, Charles noted. That lack of credit history presents other financial barriers beyond housing, too: After Charles’s initial release from prison in 2016, he said, his nonexistent credit prevented him from getting an affordable loan toward a vehicle. He could only secure “on-lot” financing, which came with higher interest fees.
How do I seal or expunge my criminal record?
You might live in a jurisdiction that will make your conviction history or arrest history disappear from the public view or destroy it entirely, either automatically or through an application process, depending on the offense. That could include sealing your record — making it inaccessible to the public, but accessible to certain employers and government agencies — or total expungement, which gets rid of the record completely. A pardon, meanwhile, might forgive a person for their crime, but doesn’t necessarily change their record.
For example, under a new law, Michiganders convicted of some misdemeanors punishable by fewer than 92 days of incarceration will have their record automatically expunged seven years after their sentencing date, according to the Detroit Free Press. The same largely goes for people incarcerated for more than 93 days on a misdemeanor offense, as long as they weren’t convicted of another crime during the seven years. Even people with certain felony records can get up to two of those convictions automatically expunged a decade after their sentencing date or completion of their sentence — though, as with most expungement rules, that doesn’t apply to people convicted of crimes like murder or rape.
In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, meanwhile, the prosecutor’s office says that while a person with a sealed record no longer has to disclose that record on applications, prosecutors, judges and police officers can still gain access to the electronic and paper records, as can employers for law-enforcement positions or careers working with elderly people or children. People must apply to have their records sealed, including in instances where their criminal records stemmed from an offense that didn’t result in a conviction.
To figure out whether you’d be eligible for expungement or record sealing, start with checking state court websites, Grawert said. The process of expungement can be complex, he added, and it’s often worth talking to an attorney. For assistance in your area, try the website LawHelp.com, which has a directory of local legal resources, or your county’s public-defender office. Organizations sometimes also hold free in-person clinics to provide expungement help; these may be advertised on the local news or the social-media pages of legal-aid organizations, courts and prosecutor’s offices.
If you believe you’re being denied housing or employment based on a sealed or expunged criminal record, it’s also worth checking if you’re in a jurisdiction where landlords and employers aren’t allowed to reject you based on old filings.
Additionally, through the nonprofit Foundation for Continuing Justice’s Expungement Clearinghouse project, you can submit a court order showing your record has been cleared or modified and a request to have criminal databases updated to the extent possible. The organization’s attorneys will then review the request, and, if it’s authenticated, alert private background-check companies to update their records to reduce the likelihood they distribute out-of-date info to employers and landlords.
Even so, the organization warns on its website, the effort may not entirely clear your information from private databases, as “background check providers are unlicensed and it is impossible to even know how many providers there are.”
‘Getting copies of your credit report, getting copies of your criminal background check, requesting it from the state, Googling yourself — just get a handle on what an employer might see.’— Sarah Lageson, an associate professor and sociologist at Rutgers University, Newark
Something on my record is holding me back. How do I find out what it is?
If you think you’re being denied housing or employment due to something in your criminal record — but you’re not sure what — it’s still worth trying to gain access to your own background-check results to get a sense of what others are seeing, especially to ensure it’s all accurate.
At least in New York state, people also have the right to access their criminal background check report if they’re denied employment because of it, Drigo of the Legal Action Center said.
“The best thing people can do is arm themselves with as much knowledge about their record as possible, even though it can be really scary and a really demoralizing and frustrating process,” said Sarah Lageson, an associate professor and sociologist at Rutgers University, Newark.
“Getting copies of your credit report, getting copies of your criminal background check, requesting it from the state, Googling yourself — just get a handle on what an employer might see,” Lageson added. “The first thing you can do is start to address any errors.”
Should I pay to hide my criminal record in online search results?
Resist the temptation to pay for online services to bury search results or remove information online for a fee — they might not get you anywhere.
Though people can ask that their records be removed from search websites, the companies operating them can also argue they’re simply publishing public court and police records, aggregating information that already exists. Other companies may offer to suppress “bad” search results in favor of positive ones, like social-media profiles. But consumers can do that themselves by creating profiles and websites on LinkedIn, for example, Lageson said.
“A lot of these companies that have popped up that claim to do reputation management — the first thing is, court filings have shown that some of them are owned by the very companies that post mugshots and arrest records,” Lageson added. “When you think about it, one website can never legally compel — unless there’s a copyright violation — another website to take down information. That just doesn’t make sense.”
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