Fair housing laws protect many Montana residents from discrimination when looking for a home to rent or buy. When it comes to criminals, however, there’s nothing stopping landlords from putting them at the bottom of a big pile of demands.
By early November last year, Katrina Everhart was well settled into her routine at work. She had recently gotten a job at the Poverello Center, a homeless shelter in Missoula. However, that all changed when her landlord informed her of his plans to renovate and raise the rent by over $750. It was not something Everhart could afford.
“We ended up staying in our car for a few nights, then we stayed with our daughter-in-law, and now I’m staying with my boss.”
When she received this notice, Everhart was living with her husband. He is currently in prison. Everhart also has a record. About seven years ago, at a time when she was addicted to meth, Everhart was charged with conspiracy to sell meth. She was sentenced to five years in federal prison and got out in four years. She’s been clean ever since. Although she has turned her life around, Everhart is still a criminal on paper. This means that she must check “yes” when rental applications ask her if she has a file. Everhart had been couch-hopping since January.
“It’s really disheartening when you know that when you have to fill out this application, it’s like, ‘Are you a criminal?’ or in the fine print it says “We don’t rent to criminals”, but you still have to try in the hope that hey, you know? But yeah, it was really, really difficult.
Eight percent of Americans have a criminal recordaccording to a 2017 study by the Ministry of the Interior.
Montana’s Fair Housing Law prohibits discrimination based on a person’s age, race, family status, religion, color, sex, or disability, but it does not protect people with criminals. In Missoula, rental availability is less than 1%. It’s beyond a tight market, and landlords can afford not to rent to the likes of Katrina Everhart.
Jesse Jaeger, director of advocacy at the Poverello Center, raised the issue at a public forum hosted by Engage Missoula, the city’s online hub where Missulians can comment on projects and issues facing the city.
“The checkbox on these application forms just creates this situation where owners are allowed to, or it’s easy for them to, kinda screen willy-nilly without actually knowing the actual applicant.”
Jaeger would like to see more people, especially lawmakers, advocating for removing some of the barriers for people who need to find both rentals and jobs.
Laws against some variants of the felony tick box have been passed in 27 states and in Washington, D.C. Oscar Flores is a national organizer for All of Us or None, a California-based organization that advocates for incarcerated people and their families. He has two felony convictions himself, so he understands what’s at stake.
“We have a lot of adverse effects. You know, housing, employment. You know, all kinds of disenfranchisements regarding voting, juries, even limited access to certain jobs due to professional licensing, and then just the stigma of incarceration.
Although Montana does not have an All of Us or None branch, there is one in Idaho. Mary Failing started it in 2019 with her friend Roni Ramos for a school project.
“There’s definitely, like, a politicized high point in advocacy, and especially criminal law reform, a lot of people think like ‘this is a left-wing ideal, we have to change these systems,'” Failing said. . “No, it’s an ideal for everyone. It affects everyone, no matter what political party you align yourself with.”
In 2018, the Missoula County Human Resources Council attempted to bridge the gap between criminals and stable housing. He won a $153,000 grant focused on writing rental applications that landlords would accept. The grant was also intended to provide proof of rental history as well as money to help cover living costs. The program identified 88 Missoulians recently released from prison. Of these 88, 24 leases signed. The program was not renewed, and since then the market has deteriorated a bit for tenants.
Katrina Everhart was finally able to sign a lease after two months of sleeping on friends’ couches and considering buying a bus to live in. The research was exhausting and stressful. She eventually signed a lease for a two-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot unseen view.
“I’m still a little nervous, because you never know what to expect until I’m there. But yeah, I’m, you know, I’m optimistic. You know, I don’t want to have to do that again.
The minimum lease in his new home is six months. She hopes to be able to stay there for at least a year.
“We are more than just a number; we are more than our mistakes or bad choices. I’ve, you know, worked so hard to be a better person and to help and I still feel like every day I’m looked down on for, you know, having an addiction disease and therefore the crimes that hinder everything I do.”
This story comes from a reporting partnership between the University of Montana School of Journalism and Montana Public Radio.