Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021 | 2 a.m.
Nicole Meyer’s passion for flying planes temporarily lifted her out of a drug addiction that began when she was a teenager.
Meyer, at just age 23, was believed to become the youngest female pilot for Delta Air Lines.
An injury forced her out of her airline job in 2010, and she descended again into addiction, racking up drug charges and five felony convictions over the course of the next four years. She was arrested in 2014 and served two years in the Nevada Department of Corrections.
After living for seven months in a transitional housing facility, she was fully released in 2017, and Meyer quickly learned of one of the biggest challenges facing felons: Finding housing. Now a job developer at Hope for Prisoners, a group that helps the formerly incarcerated transition to life after imprisonment, Meyer advocates for felons trying to get back on their feet and into a stable living situation.
“Housing is a major, major issue that nobody has seemed to figure out yet,” said Meyer, who has lived in Las Vegas since she was released.
Access to housing has always been an issue for felons, regardless of the city. It’s been exacerbated during the pandemic because landlords who have also struggled amid lengthy eviction moratoriums are even more cautious in screening tenants. This reality has amplified the efforts of groups such as Hope for Prisoners seeking meaningful change.
Hope for Prisoners has a list of felon-friendly housing options for its clients, many of which are in downtown Las Vegas, including on Fremont Street, Las Vegas Boulevard and Bonanza Road. But by virtue of their location, these apartments expose ex-prisoners to the high-crime areas they are trying to avoid, Meyer said.
Meyer recently needed a short-term rental for herself, her husband and her children while they were between selling and buying a new home. She struggled to find anywhere that would rent to her because of her criminal record, she said.
“We went to every apartment complex, I mean, just drove around, and every single one: ‘We don’t rent to felons. We don’t rent to felons. We don’t rent to felons,’ ” she said.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity create guidelines for landlords to reference when determining their own screening criteria for applicants, said Susy Vasquez, executive director of the Nevada State Apartment Association.
Under HUD policy, landlords can ask tenants about their criminal history, including if they were convicted of a crime as well as the nature of that crime. Having a criminal record is not protected under the Fair Housing Act. But because Black and Hispanic Americans are arrested, convicted and incarcerated at higher rates compared to other populations, criminal records-based housing restrictions could have a disproportionate effect on people in those groups.
If landlords view someone’s criminal record for a housing application, they will look back up to seven years for felonies and three to four years for misdemeanors, Vasquez said. Some places do not look at an applicant’s criminal record, and Vasquez said these apartment complexes tended to be less expensive units with weekly rental agreements.
“There’s been some form of standardization on the screening process just because everyone’s kind of doing the same thing, which decreases the likelihood of Fair Housing complaints or issues,” she said.
More than 70 million Americans have a criminal record to varying degrees, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based research and advocacy group. Minority groups like people of color, LGBT individuals and those with mental illnesses are disproportionately affected by mass incarceration, which has quadrupled over the past 30 years.
Jason Elleman, Las Vegas-based landlord who owns 250 units across six LLCs, said his properties did not check criminal records.
“These people have to live somewhere,” he said. “You can say, ‘Not in my community. Not in my building,’ but … it’s good to give people a second chance.”
At Hope for Prisoners, Meyer works with incarcerated people up to 18 months before their release to ensure they have steady employment once they are out. Connecting people to jobs during the pandemic has been somewhat smooth, she said, because of the constant, heavy demand for workers.
Robert Pacheco, a Hope for Prisoners client, was released three weeks ago on house arrest after serving about five months on assault and battery charges, he said. This was his first felony conviction, he said, and he is hoping to secure housing while currently living at the Las Vegas Rescue Mission, a local organization that provides food and shelter to those in need.
Before acquiring a full-time residence, some felons may reside in transitional housing facilities. Hope for Prisoners works with the incarcerated through Casa Grande Transitional Housing in the Nevada Department of Corrections, a facility with dormitories and programs to connect ex-prisoners with jobs and to secure housing after incarceration. Entry is application-based and available to those without violent or sex-related charges, Meyer said.
Pacheco said he had an Oct. 3 deadline to find permanent housing beyond the rescue mission. He is concerned about the reality of finding quality housing, struggling since his release to find an apartment that would at least accept his application.
He said he was particularly concerned this lack of access would propel him into homelessness, something he has experienced before.
“I really wish that they wouldn’t judge people based upon their past history and just see them as they are because a lot of us that have been incarcerated … are just trying to better (our) situation,” he said. “It’s very depressing. It’s very aggravating. It takes all the fuel that we have in us to keep going.”
Marcus Harrelson, another Hope for Prisoners client, also scrambled to find housing that would accept his application despite multiple felony charges. He was incarcerated during the height of the pandemic — from April 2019 until January of this year — after a heated argument with his girlfriend landed him with a plea deal to avoid additional time based on previous drug-related charges, he said.
To sidestep the background checks that some apartments require, Harrelson said that felons may opt to live with a partner who was not incarcerated and therefore can apply without such obstacles, something he wished to avoid. He began his search in May, finally settling two weeks ago on a complex at Twain Avenue and Paradise Road — an area he feels is unsafe — that he found on Facebook.
“Nobody will rent to me, so I have to go for something less desirable just to have a place to live,” he said.
Seeking out housing, especially affordable options, has become more strenuous during the pandemic, Meyer said, because she thinks landlords are less likely to trust felons to pay their rent.
“If you’re talking about actually buying properties, it’s not an option for our clients,” she said. “I think with the (eviction) moratorium, (landlords) just buckled down, and they figured, ‘People aren’t paying their rent. Why are we going to go rent to a felon?’”
Vasquez said the state apartment association was working to better inform landlords about housing barriers felons face through conversations with local organizations like Hope for Prisoners and Operation Home, progress that has slowed during the pandemic.
“The hesitation is truly, in speaking with my landlords, the more they educate themselves, when we educate them on the process, the more comfortable they are,” she said. “It’s going to be a process to be able to educate people that have been relying on certain screening criteria to, in air quotes, ‘Keep their community safe.’ ”