Finding A Place To Live As A Registered Sex OffenderRachel Bell
Recently, while researching whether or not a landlord is legally required to tell you if someone was murdered in your apartment, I started to wonder about other disclosures landlords are required to give. It’s common knowledge that registered sex offenders appear on a list that can be checked online, and most people know that some states have laws preventing them from living too close to schools or parks. Maybe it sounds crazy, but I was curious to know more about what it’s actually like to try to find a home once you’ve been convicted of a sex crime. Because the internet is the modern-day equivalent of the Wild Wild West, I was able to easily locate several support group style forums for registered sex offenders where I could ask people to answer some questions for me.
The time I spent on these forums was, uh...interesting. I noticed that one of the most common post topics was people who had just been convicted wondering if they would be treated poorly in prison. Almost as common were posts about finding housing. I started to get a little overwhelmed by all of it. I took a step back to do some research.
The United States has a general Fair Housing law that protects certain people from discrimination, and every state in the country has their own version that, in some cases, adds a few more specific protected classes. In general, the laws are vague when it comes to whether or not a landlord can deny housing because an applicant is a sex offender. On one hand, it could be considered discrimination. On the other hand, a landlord has a duty to act in the best interest of the safety of all of their tenants, which could be interpreted as not renting to criminals. Some states have requirements intended to help ease this process. In California, all rental agreements have to contain a paragraph letting the tenant know that they have the right to access sex offender information.
I searched the New York state registry for sex offenders in my area. Each person listed had several photos, and the list included any other names they may use, a description and license plate number for their car, their home and work addresses, any scars or tattoos they may have, and details about the crime(s) they committed, including the age of the victim(s). A sex offender’s status on the registry depends on the severity of their crime - less “serious” crimes don’t get you put on the list, and more “serious” ones will have you on the list for anywhere between 20 years and the rest of your lifetime.
I posted on one of the sex offender support forums asking if anyone would be willing to answer some questions for me about how they found housing, not sure what to expect, and waited.
Only 16 minutes later, registered sex offenders were responding. Most of them were incredibly suspicious of me, and some were straight up mean. I was accused of trolling and people seemed to think that I was trying to get information to be used against them. I was met with a lot of paranoia. Understandably, though; if I had committed some terrible crime and you could find my mugshots just by Googling my name, I’d probably be paranoid too. A few people messaged me privately offering to help. Almost everyone I talked to was careful to ask my age before giving me any more information. I wondered what would happen if I said I was 14.
Rick* has been a registered sex offender in New York for 2 years. He told me that he suffered through several traumatic experiences that led to him “looking for an outlet.” I asked what he meant by that and he said, “I found that outlet in child pornography. Specifically the downloading of it. I was caught due to my carelessness and inexperience with file-share software.” It occurred to me that it would be very difficult to find any humorous way to share this blog post on Instagram, because shit was getting real in the DMs. Rick has had a lot of trouble finding housing, to the point where he is currently homeless. He says that the only reason he’s been able to find any housing since his conviction is because he is a veteran and there are agencies that help veterans find homes. He is currently on a housing rotation, moving from shelter to shelter every week with the help of social services.
New York state law has had a provision since 2005 stating that sex offenders cannot live within 1,000 feet of any school. In 2014, the law was re-interpreted by the Department of Corrections to add that restriction to any homeless shelters that may house sex offenders. Only 14 of the 270 homeless shelters in New York City are more than 1,000 feet away from schools, leaving many sex offenders unable to find a place to live, even for a short time. The New York Times published a piece describing how this new interpretation of the law has meant that some sex offenders must stay in prison past the end of their sentence, as they cannot find a place to live that meets the state’s legal requirements.
Rick explained that he has to move shelters once a week because of this law. He ended our correspondence by saying, “I carry as little as possible. I rely on family for support. I regret ever looking at the images and videos. It has brought me nothing but shame, ridicule, hostility, and bitterness.”
Dan* messaged me next, introducing himself as a moderator of the support forum. I recognized his username - someone who was suspicious of my intentions had tagged him in my original post, asking him to delete it. Dan is a registered sex offender in California, and has been registered for 6 years. When I asked him if it was hard to find housing, he said, “Yes. It’s difficult. Any rental agency that runs any kind of check will deny you housing. Eventually, you will find housing, but your name and address will appear on the web.”
Dan’s referring to California’s Megan’s Law, which dictates sex offender activity. Most sex offenders must update their home address every year with local law enforcement so it can be updated on the registry available online. Homeless sex offenders must update every 30 days, and violent sex offenders every 90.
Dan said that although there may be laws protecting sex offenders from being immediately evicted if a neighbor finds out about their criminal background, he’s heard of it happening. “It’s by no means rare.” Although I didn’t ask, he did offer advice for any sex offender hoping to find housing: “My best advice is always rent a private room on Craigslist and keep a low profile.” Jesus.
Alex* told me that “housing was easy,” and asked if I had any other questions. He was the only sex offender I spoke to who hadn’t struggled to find housing, so I asked what he had done to make it so simple. “I rented a room from my father when I first got out, and then a house from him, and just recently bought a home.” Alex had rented both the room and the house on a street where he grew up. His family owns 3 houses on the block and most of the neighbors already knew him, so notifying them of his sex offender status wasn’t a big issue. “In my new house the neighbors have been notified and we haven’t had any issues.” This seemed to be a rare experience; not every sex offender has a landlord for a dad who will rent them a home next door to where they grew up.
Phil* reached out through a private message, saying, “I’ll talk if you tell me your age first. That will determine if I can talk to you.” He lives in Chicago, Illinois, and has been a registered sex offender for 11 years. His charges were “Predatory Criminal Sexual Assault” and “Child Abduction.” He said that there was a lot of government support in Cook County for sex offenders, as it’s the county in the state with the highest population of them. Three years after he was convicted, he told me, he “made a little mistake,” by not notifying law enforcement of his address change when he moved. He was charged with a Class 4 Felony, fined $500 and served 10 days in county jail.
Illinois law says that he got lucky with those punishments. He could have had 10 years added to the time he must spend on the registry or had his parole or probation revoked, putting him back in jail for a much longer time. The law also prevents child sex offenders, like Phil, from living within 500 feet of any school, playground, day care center or playground. He is also restricted from communicating online with anyone under the age of 18, unless they are his son or daughter.
- Don’t commit sex crimes.
- Don’t rent your spare room on Craigslist.
- Remember that every user on Flip gets background checked.
*Obviously I made up all of these names because no sex offender was about to tell me their real name.