Desmond Meade succeeded in building a movement to restore voting rights to 1.4 million U.S. citizens in Florida. Until recently, he faced a barrier securing housing. For others who have paid their debts to society after felony convictions, the barrier remains.
Desmond Meade is at the top of his game. Last year, he led the Amendment 4 charge to restore voting rights to Floridians with felony convictions, earning accolades galore.
The 52-year-old executive director of Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people, alongside Michelle Obama, Greta Thunberg and the Pope. The mayor of Orlando, Meade’s hometown, made Sept. 10 “Desmond Meade Day.” And the Orlando Sentinel named him “Central Floridian of the Year.”
For all his successes, Desmond Meade still couldn’t find a place to live.
Meade and his wife, Sheena Meade, spent nearly a year looking for a new home to rent. It’s not a question of money or being picky; they’re financially secure and have been interested in several houses. The Meades kept getting turned down for one reason: his felony record.
“When you start looking for rental properties, folks let you know, no evictions, no criminal history,” Sheena said.
Desmond isn’t shy about his past. Decades ago, he was convicted on drug charges. In 2001, he went to prison for three years for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. He ultimately completed drug treatment, earned a law degree, got married and dedicated himself to overturning Florida’s felony disenfranchisement law. It’s been nearly 20 years since his last conviction.
But none of that mattered when he filled out a rental application.
He may be famous, but Desmond, for those many months, also was one of millions of Americans whose ability to secure housing was hindered by the past.
“Sept. 10 is ‘Desmond Meade Day’ in Orange County…but we can’t get a home,” Sheena said.
Nearly all rental applications ask about criminal records. According to the FBI, 73.5 million Americans have a criminal record – defined as having a felony arrest. Landlords are known to consider felony and misdemeanor convictions, charges and arrests.
“There is no federal data on the number of people with a criminal conviction living in the U.S.,” PolitiFact reports.
Some landlords don’t intentionally deny people with criminal records but use application software that automatically filters them out. Most rental application forms available online automatically include a question about felony convictions. Even if individuals with a conviction get past the application, the algorithm and the owner, they can still be denied by a homeowner’s association.
“There are HOAs that have written within their bylaws conditions that wouldn’t allow me to own or even rent a home,” Desmond said.
The Meades have wasted time and money on application fees, but the search also puts their family – which includes five children and Sheena’s mother – through the emotional ringer.
“I’ve never seen him sink like he did that day,” Sheena said, recalling her husband explaining his history to yet another landlord. “It was demeaning.”
There’s very little the Meades can do about their predicament. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) prohibits discrimination based on several protected categories – race, religion, disability, age, familial status, national origin and gender – but not criminal history.
It’s possible to bring a claim under FHA for a policy that has a disparate impact on any of these protected classes, and there have been successful suits against policies that disproportionately impact racial minorities.
But that may soon be nearly impossible. The Trump administration recently proposed new guidelines that will make it much harder to file suit based on disparate impact. Public comment on the proposed change is open until Oct. 18.
Counterintuitively, people with criminal records who are financially well-off are at a disadvantage compared to people who receive public assistance. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) guidelines broadly prohibit denying housing to people with criminal records, with some exceptions (including sex offenders and drug traffickers). Landlords can consider criminal history only on a case-by-case basis.
These guidelines don’t apply to the private market in most of America, however. A handful of municipalities – Seattle, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Detroit – have moved in some way to ban boxes that ask if an applicant for housing has a felony conviction. But, no state has done the same, and advocates say Florida, which has many conservative residents, is not likely to be among the first.
“Folks, usually in the South, are like ‘this is great,’ but I don’t know what we could do with this from an advocacy perspective, because it’s not even on the table right now,” said Kate Scott, who until recently was deputy director of the Equal Rights Center (ERC). The nonprofit works to identify and eliminate unfair and unlawful housing and employment discrimination.
Scott said landlords are often incredulous when ERC asks them to abandon policies against renting to people with records. She said people who screen applications often don’t know the difference between a charge and a conviction, so even people who’ve never been found guilty may be affected. She noted that some landlords even ban people who’ve been arrested, regardless of whether charges were filed.
Criminal-record screenings disproportionately affect people of color, who are far more likely to get arrested, charged and convicted. A University of Georgia study found that, as of 2010, 8 percent of the general population had felony convictions, compared to 33 percent of Black males. At least 20 percent of Florida’s Black population have felony convictions.
The Meades looked for a new home for several reasons. First, they wanted to accommodate their family. They also enjoy hosting friends and events for the movement, and their current home wasn’t suitable. Sheena said that in 2018 they had to rent a house for one day for a fundraiser; they hope to host one with entertainer John Legend later this year in their home.
They also want their family to feel safe. Being in the public eye requires more security, but people with records generally have a difficult time finding safe housing.
Policies against renting to people with criminal records leaves many with few options other than sketchy apartments and weekly hotels, often in high-crime, economically disadvantaged areas, which increases the likelihood of recidivism.
“Because they don’t have access to safe, decent, affordable housing, they end up back in those communities where they were committing crime,” said Joe Savage Jr., regional coordinator for the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
Some organizations have taken to offering landlords risk mitigation payments, or a bonus for renting to people with records. To convince them, Savage said, they often must overcome unfounded fears that they’ll damage the property.
“What we find, number one, is the units don’t have any more damage than the typical renter,” he said.
Savage said that when landlords won’t rent to those with criminal records, many end up on the streets.
Desmond was homeless for a time after leaving prison, but the Meades aren’t in any danger of that. However, many of the 19 million Americans with felony convictions as of 2010, and as many as 73.5 million with a criminal record as of 2017, aren’t so fortunate.
Waiting to Hear
Based on experience, the Meades said they were reluctant to begin looking for a new home. But not long into their search, they thought they’d found one.
“The kids got excited, came home and packed,” Sheena said. “…and nothing happened.”
The deal fell through. Undaunted, they decided to leave things packed, figuring it wouldn’t take long to find another. They were wrong. After living out of boxes for weeks, they unpacked their things.
“[The emotional roller-coaster] wears on you when you’re trying to be productive and work,” Sheena said.
They took extraordinary measures, like offering to pay several months’ rent in advance, to convince owners to give them a chance. And Sheena preemptively contacted landlords and homeowners and explained who they are and how her husband has overcome his past.
“I’m giving the speech before I even apply,” she said.
Listening to his wife, Desmond tears up.
“Nobody should have to do all the things I’ve done [to get a home],” he said. “Imagine what the average person has to go through…If they don’t have an amazing wife like I have, they’re really hurting.”
Recently, the Meades heard good news: Some homeowners in Florida said they’d rent to the family.
Desmond said the owners are from another country. They didn’t hold his past against him and his family.
Claire Goforth is a journalist based in Jacksonville, Florida. This story has been updated since it was published. In September, Goforth wrote the story, “Florida’s Fight to Vote Goes On – Even After Amendment 4,” which was co-published by Juvenile Justice Information Exchange and Marguerite Casey Foundation’s Equal Voice storytelling platform. Follow Goforth on Twitter at @clairenjax. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included. The Associated Press photographs are copyright protected.