A man in the door installation business was talking to me about his past woes as a small landlord. He and his brother had picked up some rental properties in the course of their work and tried to branch out. They got a lot of work from people ready to unload houses and condos.
The laws are stacked to protect tenants from bad landlords, he said. Professional property managers have the procedures down for screening out and evicting bad tenants. They tell me they never rent to someone with an arrest record, he said.
An arrest record, not even a conviction.
It's tough finding good tenants, he said. One house he owned had been rented by a jeweler who stripped the house of chandeliers and cabinet hardware before he left. His latest job was replacing a front door smashed in by a SWAT team coming after someone who was flopping in a rental house.
For part-timers like him, the experience had been nothing but headaches, and he couldn't do that level of due diligence, so he got out of the business.
I have sympathy for the landlord who was stuck with the mess and expense. This "cost of doing business" can be written off, but it never covers the aggravation factor. It's a not unreasonable response to blacklist anyone with an arrest record
But what's the broader effect, particularly in a market where low-income and marginally employed people may be losing their places to live?
It's hard for me to ignore the fact that a white child is extremely rare in the shelter where I volunteer.
As far back as 1994, St. Paul and Minneapolis ranked first and second for having the highest racial disparity in arrest rates among the nation's cities with populations over 250,000. At the time of the report, Minneapolis had a black arrest rate 24 times that of the white arrest rate.
The disparity may be better now, but my point here isn't exclusively about race. It's about whether an already bad housing-law enforcement-employment connection is just going to get worse.
What do you do when you can't find a place to live, are out of work and have little social safety net remaining?
- You find a place where you can crash. It could be with family, but that may not be an option if relatives are struggling, too. Maybe you sleep in the car. Shelters are beyond capacity. Living rough outside doesn't suit many for long, and certainly not with kids. Eventually, you may find that drug users and other unsavory types are the only ones with room on the couch or on the rug.
- You try looking for work. Maybe you can take calls on a cell phone that lets you buy service by the minute, but what address do you put on the application?
- One of your room mates has another proposition that isn't legal, but it has a higher prospect of putting some money in your pocket.
- What the hell, you already can't rent a place under your own name.
There are plenty of people in bad situations who have made a string of bad choices. They focus on the raw deals they've gotten instead of what they need to do to change their lives. I get all that. It's why I've chosen to help their kids instead; I don't have to be making judgments about who's redeemable and whose downward spiral is beyond my ability to affect.
Every 3-year-old is redeemable. We must believe that.
But we can't do it all in preschool. And we can't do much at all if once their dad is arrested, the path toward the shelter gets so much steeper.