A Free Woman’s Hunt for Affordable Housing

Published: 18 November 2019

I am having the most incredible experience of trying to find housing after being incarcerated for 39 years.

The graces have been with me and I have a dream job thanks to the connections I acquired while incarcerated, yet the picture is still not complete. I need a place to call my own. It’s been 10 months that I’m free and I have been faced with so many harsh realities of just what freedom looks like, feels like and actually is, especially for women such as myself, whose past includes having served a lengthy sentence. There have been many amazing experiences I’ve encountered such as going to the beach and smelling the salty ocean, taking driving lessons and failing my first road test (I drove up onto the curb because I was so nervous, which resulted in an immediate fail, LOL, going out with friends to really elegant restaurants, walking down the crowded streets of the city and just absorbing it all. Doing so many wonderful things that I was unable to do, locked behind the barbed prison walls for 39 years.

I thought it would be relatively simple to find an apartment and yet once again reality slaps me in the face like a hard brick.The truth is I had no expectations except that I would get an apartment and live independently. I definitely didn’t know how hard getting housing could be and now I’m finding out some hard truths about the process of gentrification and the lack of housing for the poor, mentally ill, homeless and people who have been incarcerated.

My journey began in May 2019 after I decided to leave the program in which I was paroled. In all honesty the program was wonderful but just not a good fit for me. I felt like I was still incarcerated and after 39 years I wanted a less institutionalized residence, somewhere that I could feel like it was a home or my house, without all the rules of cleaning and cooking and showering. I moved in with my stepmother and we agreed on a set price for rent. I would provide my own food and personal hygiene items, help with cleaning, without having to be told what day and time, and I’d have access to a quaint little backyard and could invite friends over without restrictive hours or days of the week. This felt exciting and liberating, this is what my freedom was all about or at least that’s what the vision was. Sometimes I tell myself I have been wrong on so many things since being liberated, yet I damn sure know I don’t long for those prison cells.

I have a job and finally could afford to pay someone rent, take care of myself and contribute money and time to the upkeep of my new home. I was living my best life yet. The time came to pay my rent and I was gung-ho to hand over my money and show that I was responsible and willing to partner with my stepmom on this. The next month comes and I was hit with an electric and gas bill that I was not expecting and felt that she should have mentioned this when we first discussed my fee for rent. I felt a little betrayed and naive because when I said something to her about it she said “You use lights, watch TV, blow dry your hair, shower, iron and cook, well, sweetie pie, all these things take electricity and I have to pay the bills.” Wow that really hit me hard – wasn’t she was supposed to be helping me save money, not extracting every dime I earned? Oh how I vented my frustration with other friends, some of whom agreed that it should have been mentioned initially and others who just said welcome to freedom. Reality sure slapped me across the face and I vowed to go search for my own place to live.

So the hunt begins. I’m on several different sites: Zillow, renthop, hotpads, StreetEasy, Facebook, Zumper, rent.com, nyvApts, apartmentlist, nyconnect as well as Craigslist.

I signed up for New York Housing Connect Lottery when I first came home, having no income, on public assistance, receiving checks for food and rent at the halfway house I was living in, clueless thatI needed a decent credit score, a voucher (from some program), rent receipts, pay stubs (which were non existent at the time), a list of my assets (the clothes on my back) and a bank account. I thought they would accept me because I just came home and they would surely give me a place to live until I was able to get a job and take care of myself, but the hard truth is that without a history of work it’s extremely hard to be approved for an apartment.

My hunt is ongoing, I learned to utilize connections with community housing groups such as Fifth Avenue Committee and Neighbors Helping Neighbors, an affiliate. In Brooklyn where they have meetings to inform the interested community about current applications available, how to qualify and fill out the application properly so that you will have a better chance at being called and then selected. The thing is they might call you but it’s no guarantee you will get a place to live. It’s important to make sure you have all the necessary paperwork once you are called for an interview (the list is provided on the site). I’ve enlisted the help of friends, hoping they know someone who is renting or subletting. I also connected with an organization that may help assist me with subsidized housing, which requires a referral from my parole officer in order for them to help me, and my P.O agreed to provide the letter. It’s been a few weeks and I’m still waiting.

Wait wait wait…I call everyday just to check and see if she emailed it to me, still waiting…There are so many unnecessary rules, such as providing a years worth of paystubs and rent receipts, having a credit score of 700 or more, a salary 40 times the monthly rent and if you have a guarantor they have to have a salary of 80 times the rent and in some cases much more. It’s as if the system is designed to discourage people from pursuing getting housing. But I have to go to these places and get them involved if I want a place to call home.

Despite all the running around and figuring out the rules I can say that I’m hopeful that I will find a decent place to live, maybe not this month or the next but I have never been one to give up easily. My advice to anyone is to stick with it, learn as much as you can, go to the meetings, enlist friends, families and anyone in the housing business because you’re going to need all the help you can get. Happy hunting.