- Associated Press - Monday, March 16, 2015

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - Stacie Schroder’s search for a home began the day she regained her freedom.

Finding an apartment can be a complicated, time-consuming process for anyone. Schroder didn’t expect her search to be easy, but she also wasn’t prepared for the months of dead ends, denials and desperation that would come to define her housing search.

Schroder spent almost four years in prison following a 2007 arrest on drug-related charges. After prison, she learned that finding a place to live for an ex-convict is one of the biggest barriers to getting back on your feet.

“Trying to find a landlord that takes felons is hard,” Schroder told the Argus Leader (https://argusne.ws/1b0rzDk ).

Under the law, landlords are free to discriminate against people with criminal records. A popular police-sponsored rental housing program in Sioux Falls and other cities encourages property managers to reject renters with recent criminal histories.

While criminal background checks by landlords might deter crime on their properties and reassure tenants, they pose a major barrier for people who have made mistakes, served their time and are trying to get a fresh start on life. People coming out of prison often depend on a lucky break from a relative or good Samaritan, or else face turning to the same people whose influence steered them to crime in the first place.

“It’s a vicious circle. They see no light, no hope and they fall into the same circle, again,” said Paul Flogstad, Sioux Falls’ fair housing ombudsman.

The limited housing options for people with felony records raises questions about the community’s ability to rehabilitate criminals and get them off a path that leads back to an overcrowded corrections system.

“It’s just nearly impossible in this town with a felony to get housing,” said Melanie Bliss of the Sioux Empire Homeless Coalition. “Being a felon or sex offender are serious barriers for people for the rest of their lives.”

Calvin Dunham knows he caught a lucky break.

Dunham was serving a three-year prison sentence for selling prescription pills when he met his future boss and landlord at Bible study in the Minnehaha County prison.

Three days after his release from prison, Dunham had an interview for a job fixing up properties. He got the job. His new boss then offered him to place to rent after Dunham’s five-month stay at a halfway home.

“I’m just highly blessed,” Dunham said. “Society owes us nothing but maybe a chance. I think everyone deserves a second chance if they are changing.”

Property managers, though, have real incentives for not giving people such as Dunham a second chance.

More than 200 property managers in Sioux Falls, including some of the city’s largest housing companies, now participate in the city’s crime-free housing program, which offers marketing materials and police consultations to participants who agree to certain practices. They include:

- Performing background checks on all applicants.

- Denying rental to anyone on the sex-offender registry or anyone with an assault or drug conviction in the past five years.

- Installing security features such as deadbolts, peep holes that provide 180-degree views, lift and slide protection on windows and patio doors, and adequate lighting in hallways and parking lots.

“It’s a proven program; it’s a good program,” said Flogstad, the city’s fair housing ombudsman.

It’s a marketing tool for landlords, and for tenants it brings a peace of mind that their neighbor isn’t a sex offender or drug dealer.

But it also makes it difficult for people such as Dunham to find a home after prison, Flogstad said.

Discrimination still would exist, even if the crime-free program didn’t.

Sioux Falls Police Officer Jim Larson, who oversees the crime-free housing program in Sioux Falls, said people with criminal records are not a protected class when it comes to housing discrimination, so landlords can freely refuse to rent to any ex-convict.

Members of the crime-free housing program can even choose to enforce stricter conditions.

“A landlord, a managing company or an owner has the right to refuse anyone for any reason except for reasons like sexual orientation, creed and color, as long as they’re consistent with it,” Larson said.

Sioux Falls adopted the Crime-Free Multi-Housing Program in March 1997. The program is based on a national program that originated in Mesa, Arizona, in 1991. Since then, it’s spread to about 2,000 cities in 48 states, five Canadian provinces, England, Nigeria and Puerto Rico.

Initially, property managers and owners were required to complete a management class taught by police, but that requirement was dropped in 2005.

Lloyd Cos., one the largest apartment companies in Sioux Falls, is a member of the crime-free housing program. Nicholas Blau, regional manager, said one of the first questions prospective renters ask is whether they are members of the crime-free program.

Blau said the companies follow the minimum requirements of the crime-free housing program but also impose further restrictions against those with felonies on their criminal records.

“The general rule we use is any felony record of criminal action which would adversely affect the health, safety and welfare of residents is grounds for denial,” Blau said.

Instead of Craigslist or the classifieds, people with criminal records often need to look to people such as Jeff Haverhals.

Haverhals is director of Kingdom Boundaries Prison Aftercare, the ministry that connected Dunham to his future boss and landlord as he was transitioning from prison.

Haverhals spent years interacting with convicts behind prison walls through a mentorship program. It gave him an intimate view of the struggles convicts face once they leave prison. For the past four years, he’s worked with ex-convicts to reintegrate into society.

“A lot of guys don’t have a lot of hope. They are scared. They don’t have anybody to help them. They feel stuck,” he said. “When people get stressed, they go back to doing what they were doing that got them in trouble in the first place.”

At the moment, he is working with six people to help them find a place to live, get a job and get back on their feet. He admits sometimes it doesn’t work out the way he hopes - leaving him feeling like a failure. But that comes with dealing with human nature and sin, he said.

“What hurts the most is when we help and help and help and they want to go back to that life and end up back in jail,” Haverhals said.

Another program that helps ex-convicts transition into housing after prison is the Glory House, one of the few programs of its kind.

Executive Director Dave Johnson said their work helps not only those in need of a second chance but also the community.

“The reality is that for people coming out of the correction system, 96 percent of them are going to come out in the community and they will be our neighbors,” Johnson said. “I’d rather have them know the basics on how they live so they don’t struggle.”

Schroder stayed at the Glory House in Sioux Falls following her release from prison in 2011. She said they worked hard to find her a place to live, but it was tough to find anyone who would look past the felonies on her record, a reminder of her old self.

“People change,” said Schroder, who is now an engineering supervisor at a Tea manufacturing plant. “People have the ability to be better, productive members of society. God forgives us, so why can’t everyone else?”

After more than half a year of searching, Schroder finally found a sympathetic landlord in Tea who, after hearing her story, was willing to lease an apartment to her.

“A lot of people don’t give you that chance,” Schroder said. “A lot of people think that because you’re felons you’re a bad person. That’s not the case. People make mistakes.”

___

Information from: Argus Leader, https://www.argusleader.com

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