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After serving time, former convicts find themselves punished through Utah housing programs

Photo credit: Delaney Nye

By age 20, Nic Lightner had served two nights in jail and completed community service for possessing marijuana on two separate occasions. He never expected he would be paying for his crimes for the rest of his life.

“What is the purpose of serving time if you are going to spend the rest of your life being punished?” he said.

Four years after his conviction, Lightner still struggles to find a job. He and his partner dread the time when they must find a new place to live. He faces two problems because of his record: no one wants to hire a former offender, and no one wants to house one.

Lightner struggled for months to find housing because of his record, and he is not the only former offender who cannot find housing after being convicted.

Many former offenders’ experience housing insecurity after being convicted of a crime, and Ogden’s Good Landlord Program complicates the issue with a policy that excludes former offenders from renting specific properties.

According to the activist group Prison Policy Initiative, American felons who have only been to prison once are seven times more likely to experience housing insecurity than those who have never been to prison.

With over 6,000 people incarcerated in Utah prisons, according to the Utah Department of Corrections, housing insecurity is a pressing problem.

Eric Barker, the administrator of the Release and Reentry Unit in Utah, said former convicts face problems finding affordable housing throughout the state. Many other states have programs that help rehabilitating offenders afford housing after prison.

Utah does not.

Barker believes that Utah needs these types of programs, if only to save taxpayer dollars. The Board of Pardons and Parole suggests that convicts have an address before the state releases them from prison. If convicts cannot find housing, they must remain in prison for a longer time, increasing cost to the state.

According to Barker, incarcerating one felon costs about $32,000 per year, or about $2,667 per month. Average monthly rent for a 900-square-foot apartment in Ogden is about $1,000, according to “RentCafe.”

“We can’t just release these people into homelessness,” Barker said. “So, it would be way less expensive to pay for a month of their rent.”

The only alternative to prison is a halfway house, but these also cost taxpayers dollars, and most offenders view a halfway house as the last resort.

Additionally, housing insecurity has severe negative effects on a former offender’s mental health and decreases the chances of successful rehabilitation, according to researchers Amanda Geller and Marah A. Curtis.

When describing his experience with housing insecurity, Lightner said, “It gets exhausting and depressing, not being able to find a place to live.”

Lightner spent months searching to find an apartment in Ogden with his partner and said that they were continuously turned away because of his former offenses. Lightner believed that landlords did not think that he had morals because of his previous crimes and that social prejudices kept him away from certain neighborhoods.

A popular program in Ogden only complicates the issue.

The Good Landlord Program

Over 10 years ago, Utah rolled out a statewide program called the Good Landlord Program. The program incentivizes landlords to uphold certain standards, such as keeping their properties up-to-code and clean. Landlords who register in the program can receive deductions on property taxes and costs to relicense their properties.

While the state requires that landlords must comply with the Fair Housing Act, Ogden City mandates a unique policy that landlords refuse housing to people who have been convicted of a crime in the past four years.

The policy excluding former offenders from renting quickly caused problems.

Andrew McCain, the center director for the Northern Utah Community Correctional Center — also known as the halfway house — said that Ogden City “tried to villainize parolees” by implementing that policy, blaming them for crime in the city.

“I don’t believe the crime problem in Ogden is the parolees at all,” McCain said. “Research will show that parolees are not the problem.”

Regardless, the program used the policy to keep the landlords’ properties free from “criminal activity,” as stated on Ogden City’s website. McCain strongly believes that the program was first implemented to push parolees out of Ogden, because the halfway house brought a large number of them into the city.

Part of McCain’s job at the halfway house is to oversee the process of parolees finding housing. Before the Good Landlord Program, he decided where to direct parolees to find housing. After, the program did that for him, but rather than spreading parolees throughout Ogden, it pushed them out altogether.

McCain said that this caused tremendous difficulty for parolees who were trying to rehabilitate themselves post-incarceration.

After the state threatened to become involved, Ogden City, which, according to the Business Licensing Department, currently has about 1,200 registered Good Landlords, found a loophole to keep the policy in place by implementing a Waiver Program.

In the Waiver Program, former offenders may apply for a waiver that Ogden City assesses along with Ogden’s Adult Probation and Parole Office to determine their level of risk. Risk level is calculated from the former offender’s history of employment, education, mental health and recidivism rates.

Former convicts may rent the Good Landlord property if their risk level is low, and many who do apply for a waiver are approved to rent there, according to McCain.

Lt. William Farr, from Ogden Police Department, actively participates in assessing the waivers and said that he has seen a decrease in property crimes since the program was implemented, especially in larger properties where police saw most of the crime.

“The decrease in crime is not because we are pushing people out of Ogden,” Farr said. “It is because it makes landlords more aware of what is happening on their properties.”

Farr believes that the Good Landlord Program empowers landlords, because it encourages more communication between landlords and Ogden PD.

Farr recognizes that many people, like McCain, believe that the program decreases crime in Ogden City by pushing former offenders out. However, the exclusionary policy is only a small part of the program, and the rest of the program emphasizes good business practices.

Only one paragraph in the 57-page Good Landlord training manual discusses the policy that prohibits former offenders from renting Good Landlord properties.

A Good Landlord’s Opinions

Scarlett Cheney, a property manager in Ogden and registered Good Landlord, sympathizes with former convicts because of her extensive experience volunteering with the recovery community. However, she agrees with Farr that the program creates a safer environment for residents living in Ogden.

“I think it’s a great program,” she said. “It definitely maintains the integrity of my property.”

Cheney said that she never gets tenant complaints or issues with crime.

Cheney attributes some of this to the policy that prohibits former felons from renting on her property, but she is more than willing to help them with the waivers. Every time an applicant does not pass the background check, Cheney refers them to the Waiver Program.

In her two years of managing properties, only two applicants followed through with the Waiver Program, she said.

In one instance, Cheney discovered that a former offender was living on her property with previous tenants. She referred him to the Waiver Program, but he refused to complete an application. She had no choice but to evict him from the property.

“It’s unfortunate,” Cheney said. “I don’t want to make anyone homeless, but it is my job to make sure they are playing by the rules.”

Cheney believes that if the resources are available to former convicts, such as the Waiver Program, it is up to them to follow through with it.

“I do know that people need second chances, but I also know that they need to work for it,” she said.

McCain, who has worked with parolees for many years, said that since the city implemented the Waiver Program, parolees have had more opportunities to find housing.

But, housing insecurity persists.

Unaffordable Rent

McCain believes that the high cost of housing is more problematic for parolees than the Good Landlord Program, and the inability to secure a well-paying job only complicates the problem.

According to McCain, the only housing that former felons can find and afford in Ogden are old and rundown.

“Ex-convicts don’t want to live there because they are scummy,” he said. “But it’s all they can afford.”

Lightner lamented how unaffordable rent is because of his inability to secure a well-paying job after his conviction. He spent six months trying to find a job after his first conviction in 2015, and he was under serious pressure.

“My parents told me to shape up and get out, but I couldn’t get any jobs, not even the shitty retail jobs,” he said.

Lightner eventually found a job working in a local warehouse, but only because his brother secured it for him.

Additionally, finding affordable, decent apartments was incredibly discouraging to Lightner, who referred to apartment hunting as a lose-lose situation.

“They were disgusting. I don’t know how an inspector would have passed that,” Lightner said, describing apartments available to him as a former offender.

Because of Lightner’s record, he can only work low-paying jobs, and his housing options are even more limited.

Brian Wood, a former felon, was lucky enough to live with family members when he could not find housing post-incarceration. However, this is not the case for many felons, who have no choice but to live in a halfway house.

While many believe that this is a suitable option for ex-convicts, Wood described a halfway house as “the most awful place to live … a cesspool.”

Wood said that programs should do the opposite of what the Good Landlord program does; they should encourage landlords to rent to former offenders.

Lightner and McCain share this belief. They believe that a program that incentivizes landlords to rent to former convicts could potentially decrease rates of housing insecurity, offering these people a chance to start their life over.

“Everyone makes mistakes, but everyone deserves a second chance,” Lightner said.

Wood agreed.

“I would remind people that people do change,” he said.

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    OudalomhansanaMay 5, 2020 at 8:03 pm

    I love it