House Hold

The dearth of affordable housing has reached the crisis stage

Nothing in Jeff Taylor's bearing suggests he was once a drug addict. He is well-dressed and well-spoken. He has the sinewy body of a state champion mountain bike racer, which he is.

Seven years ago, however, his bedroom was a shrub.

"It was a pretty nice bush," he says. "I knew it was nice because other people kept moving into it."

Jeff Taylor: "I'll work with a guy for a year, and then 
he'll get discouraged by all the barriers in front of him. 
And then he'll fail."
Paolo Vescia
Jeff Taylor: "I'll work with a guy for a year, and then he'll get discouraged by all the barriers in front of him. And then he'll fail."
John Richardson: "They treat you like an 'it.'"
Paolo Vescia
John Richardson: "They treat you like an 'it.'"

Taylor, 42, who had worked as a stock options trader, never met a mind-altering substance he didn't like. "Name a drug," he says, "I abused it."

He was a functioning addict for years. When he stopped functioning, he wound up under the bush. He was arrested for theft -- larceny to feed his habit -- and sent to prison.

Providence smiled on Taylor in the mid-'90s when he was released to a Salvation Army residential drug-rehabilitation program. He got religion, stayed off dope and soon found himself working at the rehab center, called Harbor Light.

He was on the road to success. He and a friend -- also an ex-druggie who worked at Harbor Light -- were clean. They were employed and had a roof over their heads, an apartment near 19th Avenue and Camelback Road. But five months into their tenancy, management of the apartment complex changed, and the new firm was part of the City of Phoenix's "Crime-Free Housing" program.

This program, one of many dubious city policies that inhibit affordable-housing opportunities, prohibits apartment developers that rely on some federal programs from renting to anyone convicted of a felony in the preceding 10 years.

Taylor and his roommate faced eviction. In fact, the restriction applied to neither of them because they had successfully completed all conditions of their sentences and, consequently, had had their crimes reclassified as misdemeanors.

Taylor scrambled to convince anyone of this fact. "I probably made stops at 10 different offices to rectify this," he says.

"Most people are not going to be as tenacious as I was."

In the four years since, Taylor has been transformed. He's married and has a fine young son. He's dedicated his life to helping others. He's director of Grace Place, which hopes to open soon as the county's only long-term residential drug rehab program for indigents. (Harbor Light closed its doors last summer.)

Other felons who are struggling to turn their lives around aren't so fortunate.

"If you try to get a nice apartment, and you have the money, you can't get in," says Taylor, whose clients at Grace Place include many ex-convicts. "That person's going to say, 'What's the use of trying?'

"I'll work with a guy for a year, and then he'll get discouraged by all the barriers in front of him. And then he'll fail."

Louisa Stark, director of the nonprofit Community Housing Partnership, has asked the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to determine whether the city's Crime-Free Housing policy violates the federal Fair Housing Act, which was enacted to combat housing discrimination. HUD, in turn, has asked Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano to investigate, and she is.

Studies show that people convicted of felonies are predominantly young black and Latino men, Stark says. These people are to be protected by the act. In addition, many people who wind up in prison are mentally ill, who are also supposed to enjoy protection under the Fair Housing Act.

Stark notes that felons can emerge from prison with their rights -- voting, jury duty, elective office -- fully restored.

"The one right that is not restored here in Phoenix is the right to have a place to live," Stark wrote to HUD in February.

She calls the Crime-Free Housing program "egregious," and she notes that the rules often prevent husbands from reuniting with wives and fathers from living with their children. If families do intend to live together, the requirements send them hopscotching across the landscape, seeking a place that will take them all.

And it's not just hardened thugs who are affected. A second conviction for driving under the influence is now a felony.

Mark Stodola, programs director for the Maricopa County Adult Probation Department, believes the policy powers a vicious cycle -- one that's especially difficult for the many ex-cons who also suffer from mental illness.

"If someone is mentally ill with a felony, then they don't qualify for any of the affordable housing that's available, which means they are going to end up in the shelter or on the street, and it just continues to perpetuate itself," Stodola says. ". . . Those individuals who are doing positive things, doing drug treatment, making amends to the community, still have those restrictions to deal with.

"There definitely are some unintended consequences. To a certain extent, I think the community is inhibiting their ability to become productive members of the community."

The state's Housing Commission asserts that we are on the cusp of "an impending crisis." The panel reports housing costs are growing at twice the rate of incomes. Some 200,000 families in Arizona -- comprising perhaps one million people -- are spending more than 50 percent of their income on housing. Any family spending more than 30 percent of its income on housing is considered "distressed." One of every four households in Maricopa County falls into this category.

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