July 16, 2017, was a warm and breezy summer day. It was also the day that Hilton Webb, 67, was released after spending more than 27 years in prison. He walked out of the Ulster Correctional Facility in Ulster County, New York, to meet his two friends in the parking lot — Linda and Stu. They hugged each other and Stu gave him a bag full of necessities such as a phone and some clothing. Linda took Webb to a Mexican restaurant not too far away from the prison; it was a surprisingly delicious Mexican restaurant Webb recalls. He didn’t think Ulster County would have such restaurants with flavorful food. He enjoyed his hefty meal, without a drink of course, because he was on parole. It seemed to be a happy start to a new life, one where Webb could reinvent himself.
Webb had to find a place to sleep for the night after his meal. He arrived in Manhattan and went over to the 30th Street men’s shelter hoping he’ll finally get some rest without guards looking over him.
“I was completely disillusioned upon entering the place because it was like going back to prison. They searched everything, all of my property, as if I was going to prison. They took my fingernail clippers because it had a file on it,” he says.
Webb arrived at the shelter at about 8 p.m. It took him around five to six hours of intake forms before he could go to his room. At the shelter, he says his dinner was a half a slice of bread with peanut butter and a rotten apple. After filling out the intake forms, Webb went up to his room, only to be screamed at by his roommate for turning on the light when he was trying to unpack.
“I went to the bathroom to take a shower and there was a young man in the bathroom smoking what I thought was K2. I thought, ‘Well this is not going to work. Let me just use the bathroom.’ I went to wash up in the sink on the other side and there were two men engaged in lovemaking in the stall,” Webb says. “I quickly went back to my room and realized this is not a place that I was ever coming back to in the morning once I got out.”
It was only Webb’s first day and housing at the shelter was already traumatic. Webb didn’t know where else to go, it was July, so he thought a warm corner on the street could be ideal. Luckily, before that happened, one of his friends told him about the Fortune Society, a nonprofit organization that helps formerly incarcerated people rebuild their lives. It helped him find a shared living space in Far Rockaway.
At this living space, most men had to share a room and sleep on a bunk bed, but Webb was fortunate enough to have a single bed with a small balcony. However, while grateful, this was not ideal in the long term. While living there, he says he was robbed and had food stolen from him. It got to the point where he was given a lock to protect his room while he went to the bathroom.
Eventually, after living there for roughly four months, a supportive housing space opened up at another location run by the Fortune Society and Webb has been living there since 2017. He has worked tirelessly to become a licensed social worker to help others since his release. He currently works helping New Yorkers who are dealing with drug addictions. He’s taken positive steps to get his life back on track, yet due to his prior criminal background, he is still not able to find an apartment to rent and live in independently.
“It’s been 30 plus years [since my arrest]. Does that mean I can’t be housed? I have a job making five figures, I am a social worker. The New York Department of Education gave me my diploma after making me wait six months after I passed the test. The Department of Correction gave me a certificate of relief from disabilities. The Office of Professional Conduct did a thorough investigation of my sentencing minutes and they’ve determined I am of good enough character to be a licensed master of social work. All of that attests to my good character,” he says. “I’ve done everything I was required to do to be a good citizen and yet a background check is going to prevent me from getting an apartment.”
Since 2017, Webb has tried many times to move into an apartment of his own. When asked about his background he’s been honest and told potential landlords about his record. Each time they have immediately denied him the rental.
He remembers the first time he was denied after his release. The super of the building had shown him the apartment, it was at a perfect location and it was affordable. When asked if there was anything the super should know, Webb was honest and told him he had been in prison.
“‘Well my boss is not going to like that,’ [said the super]. I told him ‘but this was 30 years ago’ but he told me ‘It doesn’t matter he’s going to do a background check and as soon as that comes up you are going to be denied because you were incarcerated,” Webb says. “That happened more times than I want to think about.”
A never ending sentence
In New York City, there is no policy preventing landlords, real estate brokers or rental agencies from discriminating against people with convictions when they apply for housing. Anyone has the right to conduct a criminal background check and approve or deny an application because of what they find. Those providing housing are also allowed to advertise that they will not accept prospective tenants with convictions.
“It’s traumatizing to people, it harms people in different ways because people come home wanting to be successful, wanting to be stable, just like any other citizen,” says Andre Ward, associate vice president of the David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy at the Fortune Society. “When someone has stable housing it allows them to view the world in a certain way, to build a life of contribution, a life that ultimately leads to one that other people can model.”
For people like Webb, who have worked hard to create a new path for themselves, it feels like a never ending sentence.
“I am no longer on parole, I have a 746 credit rating, I have a five- figure job, I am a licensed therapist. When does my sentence end? When is that over?” Webb says.
Lizzy Couret, 53, feels the same way. She was convicted in 1991 and was released on May 8, 2008. Getting used to life after nearly two decades behind bars was difficult.
“The first day I came out I was like ‘Can I get a quarter to make a phone call? The person I spoke to told me he had a phone. I was like a phone? We had no [personal] phones, we used payphones, unless you had a household phone,” she says. “I felt awkward, scared. It took me almost a year to get used to being home because I felt like people were following me. I always looked over my shoulder.”
Upon her release, Couret stayed with her fiance, but when he became abusive she moved out and spent some time in and out of shelters — like Webb, she did not have a pleasant experience.
“I’ve been to shelters a lot and it’s not easy. It’s not easy because of the rules and regulations. They have a curfew. For a single person like myself they don’t have much. There can be up to 12 to 13 females in one area; privacy is not an option,” she says. “I don’t want to go to a shelter again because I felt uncomfortable. You’re not guaranteed to be safe there.”
Over the years, Couret has been living in different places, shelters, three-quarter houses and friends’ couches. Couret has applied to rent many apartments, but like Webb, got denied when they find out about her background.
“Last year, I was working for a corporate building as a housekeeper. I was making $3,000 every month, so I was able to afford an apartment. My friends got me an interview with a broker in Manhattan, when I went there everything was smooth. We saw the apartment, it was a studio — good enough for me. It was $1600 [a month].” she says.
After she filled out the application, the broker had some questions and told her she was not approved. “We did a background check and you have a criminal background,” the broker told her. The broker also told Couret her credit score was low — it was lower than most because she had been in prison for many years, but Couret had a stable job and could afford the apartment. This experience was one of her many disappointments.
Couret is currently living with a friend and has recently become disabled following a stroke. She uses a walker to get around, it’s already difficult to find an apartment that meets her needs, problems with potential rentals over her background make the search for housing worse.
“You cannot punish me twice for a crime that has already been dealt with. I did my time already, why ridicule me again? Why am I being put on a stand for something I already did time with,” she says. “A lot of people who have been incarcerated have done their time and prospered to the fullest. They need to give them a chance.”
A fair chance for housing
A coalition of organizations, advocacy groups and legal services have been campaigning for a bill that can change Webb and Couret’s lives. The Fair Chance for Housing Act, would protect people with conviction records from housing discrimination.
Currently, New York City law states that housing providers can’t discriminate against creed, race, national origin, gender, age, color, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, partnership status, dependents, alienage or citizenship status —- but none prevent discrimination for those with an arrest or conviction record.
If passed, The Fair Chance Act seeks to amend the law and make background checks, inquiries about conviction records at any stage of the application process or denial because of a conviction record unlawful. The law would also be amended so that housing providers:
- Will be prohibited from advertising that they will not accept people with conviction histories
- Will be required to publish the minimum rental requirements
- Will be required to tell unsuccessful applicants why they were rejected in writing
- Will be required to give each applicant a notice of their rights and instructions describing how to make a complaint if they are rejected
It’s important to note that the law will not apply to people who have sex offense-related convictions. It does not cover two family homes or New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) complexes (where background checks are required by federal law).
“There is simply no evidence that people with conviction histories are more likely to be bad or dangerous tenants. Private landlords should consider not doing private background checks because they do not show whether someone will be a good tenant,” says Ward. “It’s hurting people of color. Unfortunately, 80% of people with convictions histories in New York City are Black and Brown people. This is a racial justice issue as well.”
Should a person be reduced to the worst thing they’ve ever done?
Opponents of the bill question the safety of property owners and other tenants. However, supporters of the bill argue that denying housing to people with convictions will not necessarily increase safety. What increases safety is providing people with housing so that they can stabilize themselves economically. They argue that when a person can’t meet their economic needs it can drive a person toward violence.
“When people are given the opportunity and are housed, when people are living well and doing well because they have stable housing — because housing is a human right — they can go on to live really productive lives,” Ward says.
Webb and Couret want to have a place of their own, but don’t want an incident that happened decades ago to follow them as they try to live their lives once again.
“There is a common misconception that people who have conviction records are scums, that they are the lowest of the low, but here is the reality. I am not the lowest of the low, I’m your brother. I’m your sister. I’m your mother. I’m your father. I’m your cousin,” says Webb. “A person is not defined by the worst thing they have ever done. Whether it was on purpose, or by accident, to somebody or to yourself. Would you want the rest of your life to be defined by that one act?”
Couret wishes people saw her for who she is now, not who she was when she was convicted.
“I want people to see me as a person that has been rehabilitated, who has learned her lesson, who has come forward and done everything she could to stay in society to be a role model to other women. I want people to see me as that person, not the person I was back then, I am 53 years old, I did my time. I came home and showed society that I can stay home without getting in trouble,” she says. “It’s not fair that people don’t see us — who we are now. I am who I am now. I’m humble, I’m kind, I’m sweet. I’m caring. What I did back then does not define who I am today.”
From 1980 to 2019, around 750,000 people had a conviction record in New York City. According to Ward, the discrimination does not only affect those with the conviction but their loved ones as well. In New York City, one in five public high school students (out of an estimated 36,000) reported that at least one parent had served time in jail or were in prison. Passing the bill would change many lives, not just those with a conviction record.
“This legislation is huge and important,” he says. “It will be a win for our people.”