Sometimes, life isn’t fair. The Fair Housing Act protects a variety of potential tenants from being discriminated against, but having a felony is not among those protected classes. Having a felony on your criminal record means that a landlord can reject your application simply because you made a mistake, and now it’s left a permanent stain. But even with a felony on your record, there are still many opportunities for you to find housing. Below, we’ll go over all the steps for how to rent an apartment with a felony.
Anyone that goes through the application process to rent an apartment is immediately put under a microscope. Every little corner of your life is examined, prodded, and picked through. So when you have a felony on your record, you can expect an even more exhaustive review process. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it leads to you renting an apartment despite having committed a felony.
Understandably, landlords scrutinize every rental application that comes across their desk. The landlord is accepting someone into a home and must trust that the tenants will be model citizens. Landlords will not accept a variety of behaviors, and if they believe any of this is likely to occur, they will likely deny the application:
- The applicant has a sub-standard character
- Job-status in question
- Multiple late payments
- Damage to the property
- Illegal activity taking place on the premises
If you don’t make a good first impression on a landlord, your application may be denied immediately upon seeing the felony conviction if the apartment is in demand. The less demand for the unit or the more desperate a landlord is, the more likely it is that they will be flexible with a potential tenant.
A Study on Your Side
In the 1960s, the University of Minnesota conducted a study on criminal activity. The university came away with the conclusion that if you’ve committed a crime, but don’t commit another crime for at least seven years, that you are aren’t any more likely to commit a crime as someone who had never been convicted in the first place.
Now, if you were incarcerated for those seven years, that would not qualify for this study. But if you have been a member of everyday society for seven years without committing a crime, you can provide this study, which the Department of Housing and Urban Development is pointing to in an effort to have landlords broaden their application standards.
Write a Letter
With written letters becoming so uncommon these days, the impact of seeing one is more significant now than it used to be. If you can craft a message from the heart, showing your remorse, and explaining what kind of a person you are today, it could go a long way towards having your application accepted. Or at the very least, not rejected outright.
When any person starts to feel a personal connection to another, they naturally loosen up a bit and can start to see things from a different perspective. This technique works effectively in real estate when multiple buyers are bidding for the same property. The buyer that took the time to write a personal letter will more often than not end up with the house. Also, include a picture with the message. It will help to further personify you as an applicant.
Do I Have to Have a Background Check to Rent an Apartment?
Most of the time, the answer to this question is yes. Not every landlord will ask for a background check, but it is standard practice for most in the industry. You will often have to pay for the background check out of your own pocket too, which may make you more hesitant to apply in the first place. Some apartments explicitly state that they do not require a background check, and we’ll get into those below.
Background checks will often include a range of information including criminal records, your education, past and current employment, car and license history, and a credit check. The criminal background will include the following offenses:
- Felony convictions
- Misdemeanor convictions
- Pending, acquitted, and dismissed charges
Can Someone Say ‘No’ to My Application if I Have a Felony?
The answer to that question, unfortunately, is yes. If you have been convicted of a felony, the landlord can use that as a reason to say no to your application. If you’ve only been arrested and were not convicted, that is not a reason for someone to deny your application.
Additionally, if you’re a drug addict, you cannot be denied housing for this reason. A drug addict is considered a person with a disability and is therefore is protected under the Fair Housing Act. If you’ve been convicted of manufacturing or distributing drugs, however, then a landlord has the right to deny housing.
While you can expect to have your application denied by particular large property management companies due to your record, many other apartment complexes present a strong possibility of accepting you as a tenant.
What if My Record is Sealed?
If your record has been sealed, it is not available to the general public. The only way your record can be accessed if it’s been sealed is through a court order. A felony conviction, therefore, would not be visible on a background check if the record has been sealed.
How do you go about getting your criminal record sealed? You’ll have a much better chance of having a felony record sealed if the felony took place while you were a juvenile. Better yet would be getting your felony expunged, but this is a less likely option. If you think you may have a case for a sealed record or expungement, do your research and consider talking to a lawyer.
Secure Character References
When you have a felony on your record, you are going to be unfairly viewed as untrustworthy. It just comes with the territory. Until you’ve proven yourself otherwise, you’re going to be looked at with a raised eyebrow.
This increased scrutiny means that your references become even more critical because they can speak to your character from a third-party standpoint. Try to get as many positive recommendations as you can from anyone who will vouch for you. This includes your family, former employers, or even your rehab facility. The more references you can secure, the more likely you are to convince the landlord that you can be trusted to be a quality tenant.
When securing a reference, you’ll want to get a written letter that describes you as a high-character individual that deserves a second chance. The most helpful references will be from former landlords that can speak to exactly how you behaved as a tenant.
Offer a Higher Security Deposit
A way to show that you’re serious about taking care of the apartment unit and have the means to live there is to offer a higher security deposit. This act will let a landlord know that you are willing to go above and beyond to receive, and hold onto, a second chance. Of course, if you do not damage the apartment, you will receive this money back at the end of your lease.
When you offer a higher security deposit, the only risk you run is owing extra if you cause considerable damage to the property. If you like to throw parties or frequently have guests over at your house, you may want to think twice about offering a higher security deposit. But if you’re reasonably confident that you can keep the unit in good condition, this is a win-win situation for both you and the landlord.
Provide Bank Statements and Pay Stubs
To show that you have the money to pay for both your rent and a higher security deposit, you’ll want to provide bank statements showing a steady balance. You’ll also likely have to provide pay stubs from your employer. Nothing bothers a landlord more than late payments. If your bank account and pay stubs are in good standing, you can put the landlord at ease about potential late payments.
The key here is to show a steady account balance that is growing, not falling in value. If a landlord sees that your bank statements are decreasing, they are going to seriously wonder whether you can pay on time. So if you’re looking to rent an apartment, put off making any significant expenses.
Don’t Apply for a Loan Before Renting
Landlords are going to be looking closely at your debt to income ratio, or DTI. To calculate this, they will add up the cost of rent, along with any other debts you have, which will be found during a credit check. Once this number is calculated, it is divided by your annual gross income. Landlords are looking for a DTI of 35 percent or lower.
So now is not the time to be adding a car payment. The perfect time to apply for an apartment is after you’ve just paid off a considerable expense, which will lower your debt to income ratio.
Where Can I Find an Apartment that Rents to Felons?
Luckily, many different apartment complexes go as far as to put “Felony Friendly” in their listing description. These apartments typically do not require a criminal background check, and you’ll sometimes see them listed as “Second Chance” apartments. If you live in Dallas, Fort Worth, or Houston, there is a website dedicated to providing a list of second chance apartments in your area.
You can find apartments at the following websites:
- Apartment Guide
- For Rent
- Rent Jungle
Zillow Community Pillars
Zillow recently started up a new program called Community Pillars to help low-income renters find housing to rent at a faster rate. According to Zillow’s internal data, nearly a third of rental households are living below the Federal poverty line, and this fact gave Zillow the impetus to start Community Pillars.
Vacancy rates are also at an all-time low, and property managers have been squeezing out low-income or homeless people. To combat this, Zillow is working together with property managers and landlords. One reason Zillow gives property managers and landlords to consider joining the program is potential social and financial support depending on where the landlord lives, which eliminates risk.
If they want to participate in the program, Zillow puts a Community Pillar badge on the landlord’s profile. The badge will let prospective renters know that this landlord will consider adjusting their normal screening process to help people that may otherwise have trouble finding a place to rent.
Craigslist Might Be Your Best Option
Renting from an individual is likely to be more successful than renting from a property management company. And on Craigslist, you’re more likely to find landlords that will be more flexible with their applications than you may on other apartment hunting sites. You may also find the apartments on Craigslist to be the most affordable options.
On Craigslist, you also have a much better way of filtering properties. On other sites, you may have to scroll through listing after listing in search of a badge or a specific “Felony Friendly” listing title. On Craigslist, you can filter for “no credit check” or “no background check” and immediately find those listings. When on the apartment hunt with a felony on your criminal record, browsing Craigslist for listings should be part of your daily routine.
What If I Can’t Find an Apartment?
If you’ve exhausted all of your resources, checked every listing and still can’t find an apartment, one final option is to live in an extended-stay hotel or motel. A hotel will not run a background check, and some offer monthly rental options. But before you use this option, look into subletting, rent-to-own, and make sure to take advantage of a local reentry program.
A sublet is when a tenant leases their apartment out to another tenant. In some cases, it can be more challenging for you to rent from a sublet, but in other cases, you may find the right opportunity. The bottom line is that you should be exploring every avenue you can.
Rent to Own
As with any marketplace, leverage plays a crucial role in determining who comes out on top. For most established property managers with in-demand properties, the advantage is all on their side, which makes it less likely for you to get an application accepted. But when leverage starts to disappear on the listing side, your chances increase exponentially.
When a home has been listed for sale for an extended time without a contract, the home sellers start to freak out. They face continually reducing the price of the listing or pulling the listing off the market. Some homeowners are trying to sell a house that isn’t their primary residence, and every month that goes by means hundreds of dollars in taxes burning a hole in their pocket. When this situation happens, a seller is much more likely to agree to a rent-to-own contract and will be less scrutinous about who is living in the house.
Rent-to-own is a common practice in real estate because it makes both parties happy. A home seller gets the assurance that their house will sell and receives rent payments in the meantime to cover or even exceed their expenses. Your benefit as the tenant is that you may not yet have enough money to buy a house, or it simply isn’t the right time in your life, which allows you to rent as your situation improves. Then, when the time is right, you complete the purchase of the home.
A landlord/home seller is going to be more likely to be more flexible with your application as a renter if they know you’ll likely be buying the home. When you know that you are the future homeowner, you are much more likely to treat the house with care, be courteous to the neighbors, and stay in good standing with the landlord.
Another advantage of a rent-to-own situation is that you can have a portion of your monthly rent accrue towards your eventual down payment. This is a type of forced savings that will leave you stress-free when it comes time to purchase. Also, in many circumstances, you are not locked into buying the house; you simply have the option to buy at the end of your contract.
Rent-to-own is also beneficial if you want a few years to improve your credit score before getting a mortgage. Make sure to get pre-approved for a mortgage if you can before going through the rent-to-own process. Getting pre-approved will show the landlord that you’re a serious and capable buyer. Perhaps more importantly, it will give you the assurance that you’re ready and able to buy the house at the end of the contract.
Take Advantage of a Re-Entry Program
After getting out of jail, many do not realize that there are support systems in place to help you get back on track. These are known as Re-Entry programs, and they’ll help guide you to find housing and get a new job after a felony conviction.
The Lionheart Foundation is an incredibly helpful resource for finding a re-entry program in your area. Just click on your state, and you’ll receive a pdf list of all the organizations offering support where you live. Having a support group guide you and set you up in advantageous situations can be invaluable when you’re not sure where to start.