“Would you feel safe living next to a murderer?”
This was the question Jerry Brown of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development asked of me when I reached out to him about the Pittsburgh case of Foster Tarver.
Tarver was convicted of first-degree murder in 1969. He was 17 years old, a juvenile, but tried as an adult. Tarver was armed when he walked into a Harrisburg bank, but he didn’t pull the trigger. The law treated him as if he’d killed the man who was shot by his partner. Tarver was put on death row before the sentence was lowered to life in prison.
Then in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that automatic life prison sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. In 2017, Judge Richard A. Lewis resentenced Tarver to 40 years to life in prison. Tarver was paroled in June 2018 after serving 49 years in prison.
After release, Tarver — now 68 years old — moved home to Pittsburgh and has been living with his brother.
Given Pittsburgh’s deficit of affordable housing, Tarver struggled to find a place of his own. He applied for housing with the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh [HACP] in September 2018, but learned his search would be complicated not only by waitlists.
The housing authority denied his application based on his criminal background on Dec. 24. The agency cited Section 8.7 of their Admissions and Continued Occupancy Policy, which states that occupants convicted of murder “will be denied for life from the participation of HACP.”
Foster’s reentry into society was made possible by a U.S. Supreme Court decision meant to reconcile the injustice of mandatory life sentences for juveniles. Meanwhile, reform movements like “Ban the Box” provide second chances for people with criminal records entering the workforce. But some local housing authorities continue upholding policy which, to some, seem outdated in comparison to reform movements — a discord compounded at the federal level by differences in Obama-era and Trump-era views.
Tarver filed a statutory appeal to the HACP decision on Jan. 15 and is set to receive notice of a meeting with a judge and an attorney for the housing authority within two months. A judge can overrule the housing authority’s decision if it’s found to have gone against the weight of the evidence or violated the law.
But Tarver has since taken another route. He just found housing in a private retirement community in the East End.
“When you went to the agency who was supposed to try to give you hope, but they only made it more difficult, at some point you’re expected to help yourself,” Tarver said.
Still, the policy that Tarver and his case highlights is worth exploring. Would you feel safe living next to Foster Tarver? Should a murder conviction disqualify a person from public housing?
‘Adjust to the reality’
Tarver is a soft-spoken man who addresses everyone as Miss or Mister. He’s obsessed with the law and its philosophy. “Law is supposed to be a vehicle for remedy,” he’s told me more than once. Much of our conversation about his experience in prison has led to philosophical talks of justice. Tarver reads and discusses laws, statutes, rulings and precedent often — he’s encyclopedic in his recall of certain cases.
While in prison nearly 50 years, Tarver earned 68 college credits. He worked in the law library for years and learned everything he could about his case, while helping others learn how to appeal and understand their own cases. Tarver is currently studying at the Community College of Allegheny County and will obtain his associate degree by summer. (He actually had to rush from his December HACP hearing to take a final exam in statistics.)
He plans to attend Duquesne University in the fall. Tarver wants to become a paralegal. He’s also getting his driver’s license for the first time.
“I’m blessed,” Tarver said. “I know I’m blessed I’m out here because of a change in law and a change in people’s minds and hearts.”
When I asked how he’s adjusting to life on the outside, Tarver balked. He’s never liked the word “adjust.” He said he’s just living life, not adjusting. “You never want to adjust to the reality that you’re going to be in [prison] for the rest of your life,” he said. Tarver was young and naive in 1968. He said he had no idea what was going on during his trial. He wasn’t sure what his lawyer was doing or if they put up the right argument.
“I didn’t know nothing about the court system. All we could go on was what our attorneys presented us. All three of us pleaded guilty to a lesser degree but were convicted of the first degree.”
Tarver said his lawyer advised that he plead guilty to murder, which could have allowed for life in prison, but a panel of judges soon decided that the evidence showed he committed first-degree murder, a capital offense.
“I looked up, and he led me to death row,” Tarver said, “I’ll never be in that position again.”
At that time, there were only two murder statutes, first- and second-degree murder. Today in Pennsylvania, first-degree murder does not apply to accomplices like Tarver. Under current law, he likely would have been convicted of second-degree murder, which treats an accomplice as if they had committed a crime but lessens the possible sentence from death to life in prison. The sentence is mandatory life in prison, but a mandatory life sentence for a juvenile is now considered unconstitutional.
The 1968 crime happened at the Dauphin Deposit Bank in Harrisburg with Sharon Wiggins and Samuel Barlow Jr. Wiggins was 17, and Barlow was 18. The trio had hopped in a car and drove to Harrisburg from Pittsburgh. Tarver says the three didn’t set out to be killers, but when George S. Morelock, 64, grabbed Wiggins during the robbery, she fired her gun. She killed him. She killed a white man. “She fired out of fear,” Tarver said.
Tarver, Wiggins and Barlow were all sentenced to death on charges of first-degree murder. During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Pittsburgh’s Chapter of NAACP traveled to Harrisburg to protest the death sentences for the three black teenagers. Byrd R. Brown, president of the Pittsburgh Chapter of the NAACP, wrote to Gov. Raymond Shafer in 1969: “This action by a Pennsylvania court stands as a bitter symbol to thousands of black citizens across the state who know the swiftness with which the death penalty is meted out to black offenders and the notorious and systematic reluctance of judges to attach a sentence of death to white offenders.”
Tarver, Wiggins and Barlow’s sentences were later commuted to life without parole. Forty-four years later, Tarver’s sentence changed again and it wasn’t long before he found himself a free man.
He didn't receive immediate release because of a 5- to 10-year prison term he received in Allegheny County for a 1973 prison break. Tarver had escaped with six other prisoners and avoided capture for six months. Wiggins would have been eligible for resentencing as well, but she died in prison March 2013. She was 62 years old. Barlow, who Tarver says wasn’t even inside the building at the time of the shooting, is not eligible for resentencing because he was 18 at the time of the murder.
‘That memo that was written how many years ago?’
At Tarver’s housing hearing on Dec. 12, before he was denied, HACP Hearing Officer LaTammie Bivins told him to apply to other housing authorities with less strict policy. She said Erie County, a housing authority two hours away, is more lenient than Pittsburgh.
According to the Housing Authority of the City of Erie’s Public Housing Admissions and Occupancy Policy, Tarver wouldn’t be banned for life. Applicants in Erie are “denied housing for a period of (20) years from the date of such incarceration.”
Tarver and his lawyer, the retired Allegheny County Common Pleas Senior Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr., appealed the HACP’s denial. Wettick, who now volunteers for Neighborhood Legal Services, declined to comment for this story, citing attorney-client privilege.
Bivins wrote in Tarver’s denial letter that, “This hearing office can only consider whether you are the individual who committed the subject offense. Evidence of rehabilitation cannot be considered. It was clearly established that you are the person convicted of murder.”
At the grievance hearing, Wettick and Tarver argued that a local housing authority cannot have more stringent eligibility requirements than admission requirements of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD]. “Otherwise, the federal standards are rendered meaningless,” Wettick wrote in the appeal filing.
A representative arguing on HACP's behalf at the hearing maintained that the authority's policy is approved by HUD, and said that “HUD would have more issue with leniency.” When Wettick asked HACP to provide evidence of the HUD approval in writing, the authority refused.
Michelle Sandidge, chief community affairs officer at HACP, referred PublicSource to page 22 and 23 of the authority's Admissions and Continued Occupancy Policy. “It will tell you exactly what our policy is as it relates to re-entry and criminal backgrounds,” she said. She’s referring to their policy that occupants convicted of murder “will be denied for life from the participation of HACP.
David Miller, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Metropolitan Studies and the Congress of Neighboring Communities, said he thinks these types of housing barriers can be harmful for individuals transitioning from living in prison.
“It's a challenge for them for a lot of ways to come back into civilian life and to compound that with housing barriers seems barbaric,” Miller said.
Miller contributed to the 2013 study from the City of Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations and Pitt’s Center for Metropolitan Studies, which recommends that “Public Housing Authorities (PHAs) take a more flexible and individualized approach in their process of determining tenancy eligibility where criminal records are present.”
In 2013, Miller and his colleagues recommended that HUD write guidance to help increase housing opportunities for individuals with criminal records. He said HUD staffers were encouraging and helpful at the time.
“If you’re a housing authority, what are the types of adjustments you can make in your rules that can be accommodating to someone released from prison?” Miller said. “It turns out to be a mixed message and it becomes frustrating for the person recently released and their families.”
In 2016, HUD published official guidance on how criminal records can be considered by providers of housing.
The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental or financing of housing on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status or national origin. According to HUD, the Fair Housing Act applies to a housing provider refusing to rent based on an individual’s criminal history.
Incarceration rates disproportionately affect black communities, so blanket policy regarding criminal records are discriminatory, the agency said.
The guidance states: "But housing providers that apply a policy or practice that excludes persons with prior convictions must still be able to prove that such policy or practice is necessary to achieve a substantial, legitimate, nondiscriminatory interest. A housing provider that imposes a blanket prohibition on any person with any conviction record — no matter when the conviction occurred, what the underlying conduct entailed, or what the convicted person has done since then — will be unable to meet this burden."Under the 2016 guidance, a housing provider that doesn't take individual cases into account and uses blanket policies regarding criminal records can be sued for discriminatory practices.
HUD General Deputy Assistant Secretary Jerry Brown, who asked if I’d feel safe living next to a murderer, was dismissive of HUD’s 2016 recommendation.
"I know what you're referring to, that memo that was written how many years ago?” he said.
He said HACP’s denial is “completely within their discretion.”
HACP does have discretion, but HUD’s guidance isn’t something to dismiss, according to Daniel Vitek, staff attorney at the Community Justice Project, a nonprofit that provides civil legal assistance in Pennsylvania. The group represents people who have been denied housing due to race, sex, national origin, family size and other reasons.
He cited a 2015 notice in addition to the 2016 guidance published by HUD; the 2015 notice Vitek referred to warns housing providers against using arrest records alone as basis for adverse decisions because an arrest alone is not evidence of criminal activity.
“Both the 2015 notice and the 2016 memo are still on HUD’s website,” Vitek wrote in an email. “Further, the 2015 Notice re: Arrests not being sufficient grounds for denial or eviction expressly states that it is HUD policy until a new Notice specifically supersedes, amends or rescinded.”
Vitek added: “To be clear, Notices and Guidance are not binding like regulation, but they are persuasive and to be given a certain amount of deference.”
Deborah Thrope, supervising attorney at the National Housing Law Project [NHLP], said HUD’s 2016 guidance is based on Fair Housing law and principles. According to NHLP’s manual on affordable housing for previously incarcerated people, Obama-era directives like the 2016 guidance are “uncertain at present, but whatever direction federal policies on reentry and housing take in coming years, advocacy in this arena will continue to be essential.”
Thrope said policy change for those with criminal records will have to start on a local level and a lot of housing authorities have restrictive policies when she believes they don’t need to.
“A lot of housing authorities still have pretty antiquated policies,” she said. “Most people applying to these programs will face some pretty significant barriers.”
Thrope pointed to the Housing Authority of New Orleans [HANO] as an example of reform and innovation. Applicants can undergo a hearing process where they can submit “mitigating circumstances surrounding the conviction and rehabilitation,” according to the NHLP reentry manual. HANO’s process is unique in that the applicant appears before a three-person panel. One of the individuals on the panel is a formerly incarcerated person who is also a resident assisted by HANO.
In Tarver’s case, Thrope said she feared the HACP denied him to avoid future cases like his. “They would be violating their own policy if they treat someone differently.”
Though grateful that his brother offered him a place to stay, Tarver worried he’d be a burden.
“As a grown man, it’s expected to have your own house. It’s a blessing you have family to help you, but the reality is that when you’re grown you have a responsibility to take care of yourself,” Tarver said.
Although he has no furniture and has never had the experience of getting the lights turned on at a new property, Tarver feels relieved. Relief to focus his energy and time on something other than a winding legal process with HACP. He can concentrate on school. He can start building a life after prison.
“I was explaining to a friend today, once the landlord gave me a key, and I went into the apartment and the door shut behind me, I thought, ‘Wow, this is the start of the rest of my life.
“If I just got a milk cart in there, I can start from there.”
Brittany Hailer is a freelance journalist based in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Katie Farnan.