University of Pittsburgh law graduate Lukas Bagshaw has degrees in political science and economics from West Virginia University. Still, he couldn't find a place to rent in Pittsburgh. Money was not the issue.
Bagshaw and his wife found an apartment for rent in the Central Northside neighborhood. "We'd been looking for months and months, and this just seemed like the perfect opportunity." But when they met the landlord, Bagshaw thought to himself, "Are they going to ask?"
Bagshaw has a criminal record — a drug conviction — from 11 years ago. Since then, each time he applied for an apartment and checked the box for criminal history, it was rented to someone else.
Across town at the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh, a masonry training program for ex-offenders, student Rashad Williams said he has encountered a similar barrier resulting from his 2010 drug conviction: insufficient credit.
"You don't have a work history or credit score over 500," said Williams, 32. "I've been incarcerated nine years; I have none of those qualifications."
As housing prices and rents rise in the Pittsburgh region, residents like Bagshaw and Williams face an additional hurdle — they're often denied housing they can afford.
Discrimination against people who have been incarcerated or have any marks on their rap sheet is one of several barriers the region’s fair housing task force is trying to reduce through a series of 12 policy recommendations being introduced this summer for public comment.
One recommendation addresses a problem both landlords and tenants face: how to handle criminal records without violating fair housing laws. The task force advocates for landlords to limit the use of criminal backgrounds when screening prospective tenants because, according to the task force report, "Criminal history is shown to have no correlation with good tenancy."
"There are two basic kinds of discrimination, lawful and unlawful," said Kevin Quisenberry, a Pittsburgh-based attorney with the Community Justice Project. In the context of housing, it is unlawful to discriminate against members of "protected classes." There are 12 protected classes in the City of Pittsburgh, including characteristics like race, disability and familial status.
"Criminal history background screening, which may not be intended to discriminate on the basis of race or other protected characteristics, nevertheless may be unlawful," Quisenberry said.
Chuck Keenan, housing coordinator at Allegheny County's Department of Human Services and a task force member, wants leaders in the Pittsburgh region to take steps similar to the City of Seattle. There, those with criminal histories now have protected-class status under "Fair Chance Housing" legislation approved earlier this year.
"Past criminal offenses may, in some circumstances, be a predictor of future criminal offenses, but not whether the person can be a good tenant," Keenan said.
Last month, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf signed a "clean slate" bill that allows for nonviolent criminal misdemeanor records to be sealed after a decade, barring additional legal troubles. Lesser convictions would be sealed automatically.
About one in three U.S. adults has an arrest or conviction record, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. And nearly half of all children have a parent with a record, according to the Center for American Progress.
Census data shows that of the 1,440 people released from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to Allegheny County in 2016, about 68 percent were non-white.
Speaking about the challenges of re-entering the housing market, Williams said, "That is something not just blacks go through. I know for sure if you are African American and don’t have money and you’ve been to prison, it's like no way. Now you have to have some money to really be known or recognized in today’s society as an African American."
Changing laws and practices pertaining to landlord-tenant relations will be difficult, Keenan acknowledged. It requires changing the mindsets of landlords, lawmakers and the public. Some landlords view their ability to screen out people with criminal histories as a way to reduce risks to their property and income or increase a sense of security for neighbors.
The task force cites research showing that after seven years without offending, the chance that someone would commit a crime again falls dramatically. "What we do know is that there is a correlation between unstable housing and the likelihood of recidivism," Keenan said. In other words, denying ex-offenders housing may increase homelessness and crime.
The task force, officially called the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Task Force, asserts that screening for criminal histories disproportionately impacts protected classes, namely people of color, and therefore, violates the federal Fair Housing Act. Municipalities are required to uphold fair housing laws, and in this region, the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations [PCHR] is responsible for investigating and prosecuting discrimination cases. PCHR created the 38-member volunteer task force to identify patterns of discrimination within the regional housing market.
"Now I'm going to ask you today, for anybody you know that needs a first, a second or maybe even a third chance that you would look past the fear and ignorance that's been created by media and simple myths. And I want you to know something: Fear kills more dreams than failure ever will."
Those words were not said by a civil rights activist, but by Steve Shelton, speaking at TEDxPittsburgh in 2016. Shelton is a career building tradesman, and founder and executive director of the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh [TIP], where Williams attended.Shelton said TIP’s intensive masonry training program places 94 percent of graduates into jobs with an average starting pay of $15 an hour—with only 10 weeks of training.
Six TIP students set down their trowels to discuss with me how their convictions have impacted their ability to find housing. All but one are living with family and friends, in spare rooms or on couches. They search for available apartments they can afford and pay application fees as high as $145, but are denied.
Williams calls about available apartments — more than 30 so far — on his lunch breaks and Saturday mornings. Application fees consume much of his part-time income from his night job at Metro PCS. He lives in a halfway house in downtown Pittsburgh with 10 other men.
"I'll just be upfront and try to, you know, tell a guy or lady I have a criminal history. I'm trying to change, I got a second chance. A lot of doors are closing and my resources are limited," Williams said.
He continues to look for apartments in "nicer" neighborhoods like Bloomfield and Squirrel Hill.
"I don't really want to move into certain areas because it's so easy to deviate back into what you're used to, and I'm not trying to do none of that,” he said. “I'm not saying I'm influenced or a follower but I just don't want to be around that environment."
Respecting law and people
ACTION-Housing, Inc. [AHI] provides some insight into how landlords can balance caring for their properties and tenants while respecting the law and prospective tenants. AHI is a nonprofit housing developer that owns, manages or is affiliated with nearly 3,000 housing units throughout the county. AHI staff attorney Kyle Webster said nonviolent, drug-related convictions are the most common criminal offense his organization encounters when screening applicants.
Webster said AHI screens for both criminal background and credit history, but are "thoughtful" about what they find and follow guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD]. AHI rejects applicants who are on a sex offender registry or those convicted of methamphetamine production, which Webster said is a requirement for HUD-funded housing.
Webster said AHI looks only at convictions, not arrests, on a case-by-case basis. Because background checks "can be faulty," he said, applicants are encouraged to appeal declined applications "to provide a complete picture" of their situation.
Some other landlords said they will overlook nonviolent offenses but worry about renting to individuals with a violent record.
"If you have an armed robbery or assault conviction in the recent past, we probably will not rent to you," said Rick Swartz, executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, citing potential liability.
“It costs a fortune to defend yourself," said John Petrack, executive vice president of the Realtors Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh [RAMP]. Petrack cited a case making its way through the courts of a landlord who rented to someone with a criminal record who later harmed another tenant. The victim's family sued.
"Everything we've seen so far indicates that, to some extent, that property owner is going to be held liable because he knowingly placed a tenant in that same building that had a criminal record," Petrack said.
Although that case isn’t settled, the task force’s recommendation states that "there have been no instances of courts upholding landlord liability when it comes to actions of third-party residents."
The task force also clarifies to landlords that there is no law requiring them to perform background checks.
The task force, with representation from RAMP, has also recommended landlord education to better ensure compliance with fair housing laws. This includes a "waiver of liability” for landlords who are complying with anti-discrimination laws, a move endorsed by the National Apartment Association.
Swartz said he values references from prior landlords. "A conviction from 15 years ago doesn't tell me much about that person,” he said. He wants to know, “Will this person be a good neighbor who paid the rent and will sit down and have a mature conversation with me if something goes wrong?"
Change and chance
Bagshaw was a 19-year old student at WVU when he was arrested in 2007. While working with his public defender, Bagshaw decided he wanted to become a lawyer. A felony conviction would cripple that dream.
A year later, Bagshaw was sentenced for a lesser misdemeanor. But there was a catch that has "haunted" him ever since. The prosecutor wrote a condition into his plea agreement that his criminal record would not be expunged.
Bagshaw avoided incarceration, getting six months of home confinement and three years of probation. Eleven years later and now with a law degree, the misdemeanor remains a barrier to housing and jobs. He makes good impressions at networking events for lawyers and pursues internships until he's asked, "You won't have any trouble passing a background check?"
"And I say, 'I do have a conviction...' And you can just feel the air dissipate from the room, and the face go cold," Bagshaw said.
Williams carries the added burden of incarceration and is only at the beginning of his journey toward the better life he sees for himself. "I got my G.E.D. within four months of being here," he said of his time in prison. "The whole almost nine years I just educated myself and now it's paying off. My family sees it, my friends see it. But a lot of people never knew me, so they don't know how far I've come at this point in my life. All they see is that record that is not expunged and they say, 'Oh no, he's one of them.'"
Williams graduated from TIP last week and was selected for its welding program, which Shelton said is for those "who have the skills and aptitude for a specialized field." Williams will be paid $15 an hour for his apprenticeship, after which he'll be placed into a full-time job.
Bagshaw and Williams have more than convictions in common — a shared history of poverty and housing insecurity.
Williams was raised in the housing projects on Larimer Avenue in Pittsburgh. He ran away as a teenager to Erie, where he had family, but his new school kicked him out soon after and he turned to "full-fledged selling drugs.” He sold enough to buy three houses. He gave one to his mom who had moved there, which Williams said was his way of "doing good things with bad money."
Bagshaw, born to a single mother in rural Elkins, West Virginia, was homeless off and on, even if he and his sister didn't know it. "My mom did a beautiful job of sheltering me. We never felt poor," he said. They relied on the church, lived in motels and once went on an "extended camping trip" after "being pushed out of one place and waiting to get into another." Bagshaw said the three of them sometimes "took long walks lasting all night."
Back at that ‘perfect’ Central Northside apartment, Bagshaw said he caught a break. They didn't ask about his criminal history and, for the first time in his life, Bagshaw signed his name to a lease.
Williams has been offering to pay six months of rent in advance to get his foot in the door, but the landlords aren’t biting. He gets discouraged, but continues to look forward.
"I'm big on change for the right reasons," he said. "This might not affect something I'm trying to do now, but my kids' kids.”
Jason Vrabel is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Oliver Morrison.