Flint, MI — Flint resident Howard Sanders was convicted of murder in the second degree at 17 years old. Now, 33 years later, he still faces difficulty finding housing in Flint.

Sanders served a 25-year sentence and was released on his first opportunity for parole in 2015. 

He’s since obtained an associate’s degree in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, works as a team lead for a General Motors subcontractor, and has sat on the Mott Community College Council at Mott Community College for the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 academic years.

Howard Sanders rolls an old tire and rim to the trash after taking it off his truck at his apartment on Friday, Sept. 1, 2023. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

“Despite all of the accomplishments that I’ve made in society, do you know how hard it is for me to get a job, to find a place to live?” he said.

Sanders estimated that he has applied to seven housing opportunities since his release. 

“I had to use my auntie’s name to get the apartment that I got. Despite me having over a 600 credit score, working two jobs all at the same time,” he said. “I was denied, but the minute that she put her name up there, it was automatically given in less than 30 days.”

Howard Sanders looks through a binder full of certificates he’s earned since his return from incarceration in his apartment on Friday, Sept. 1, 2023. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)
Howard Sanders lays out certificates he’s earned since his return from incarceration in his apartment on Friday, Sept. 1, 2023. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)
Howard Sanders poses for a portrait in his apartment on Friday, Sept. 1, 2023. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

Sanders said he wasn’t required to disclose his criminal record on housing applications, but he thought the denials likely came from landlords doing criminal record checks.

Still, Sanders said he feels fortunate because, for many returning citizens, family passes away during their time in prison, and not everyone can count on an auntie to help them secure housing after they’re released.

Johnell Allen-Bey is the Flint regional coordinator for Nation Outside, an organization that promotes policies to support currently and formerly incarcerated people, also known as returning citizens.

At an April 2023 Flint City Council committee meeting, he explained the importance of policies that allow returning citizens a fair chance at housing, noting there are more than 40,000 such residents in Flint based on Nation Outside’s database on felonies in Genesee County and the city of Flint since 1990.

Johnell Allen-Bey, co-executive director of community engagement for the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office, listens as Sgt. Laurisa Mercer speaks about the I.G.N.I.T.E. educational program at the Genesee County Jail in Flint, Mich. on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)
Debra McSwain hugs her son Deandre Arrington as he graduates from the welding program in the Genesee County Jail’s I.G.N.I.T.E. educational program in Flint, Mich. on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

Allen-Bey, a returning citizen, shared his own housing struggles with councilmembers and asked them to consider adopting fair chance housing ordinances, or those that provide protections “against housing discrimination based on prior criminal history by regulating the use of criminal background checks,” according to Nation Outside’s website.

“Every citizen, no matter what, deserves to be able to have a home,” he said.

“There’s no need to let the person out but still treat them as a prisoner on the outside.”

Flint City Council Vice President Ladel Lewis

At a June 12, 2023 meeting, Flint City Council approved the creation of an ad-hoc committee to examine fair chance housing issues in the city and offer proposed policy solutions.

The committee is composed of Council Vice President Ladel Lewis and Councilwoman Eva Worthing, who were asked to work with Flint City Administrator Clyde Edwards as well.

Lewis told Flint Beat she is looking forward to the work.

“There’s no need to let the person out but still treat them as a prisoner on the outside,” she said. “These people are no longer incarcerated, so therefore, they should not be treated as if they are incarcerated.”

Lewis referred to Nation Outside’s data that more than 40,000 people in Flint are justice-impacted citizens, and noted that many of them are in her ward on the north side of the city. 

“I want to make sure that my constituents, that my residents, that they have an equal opportunity to get a house . . . to get shelter in our city,” she said.

Lewis noted fair chance promises are about more than just passing rules and laws, though. She said it’s equally important to have committees and bodies in place to enforce whatever policies city council ends up passing.

What fair chance policy looks like elsewhere

Flint is not the first city in Michigan to consider fair chance housing for its returning citizens. 

Detroit adopted a fair chance housing ordinance that went into effect in 2019. It states that landlords cannot ask for a prospective tenant’s criminal history until a specific point in the housing application process.

After a landlord reviews a prospective tenant’s application, they can choose to provide the applicant with a conditional lease agreement. After that, the landlord can review the applicant’s criminal history.

According to Detroit’s ordinance, landlords still have the right to deny housing based on the following:

  • Ineligible for public housing
  • Lifetime registered sex offenders
  • Violent or drug-related felonies
  • Felonies committed in the last ten years, imprisonment in the last five years
  • Crimes against landlords, management, employees, agents, tenants
  • Arson
  • Metal theft, vandalism, real property damage

If the application is rejected because of the prospective tenant’s criminal history, the landlord must allow them to provide evidence of rehabilitation. If that evidence is accepted, they continue to go through the process of leasing.

If not, the applicant can file a complaint with Detroit’s Civil Rights, Inclusion and Opportunity Department (CRIO), and if the landlord is found in violation, they may face misdemeanor charges.

An infographic showing how Detroit’s fair chance housing ordinance works. (Image courtesy City of Detroit)

According to a June 16, 2022 Michigan House Democrats press release, Detroit’s fair chance legislation led to an 8% reduction in housing vacancy rates in the city and an increase in property values. 

Julianne Pastula, the Chief Legal Counsel for Operations in Detroit, wrote the city’s fair chance housing ordinance.

Pastula said that when drafting it, she did research on recidivism rates, or the rates at which convicted criminals reoffend.

She also looked into federal housing policies for public housing and other cities with fair chance housing ordinances while she was drafting the ordinance, like Seattle, Wash.; San Francisco, Calif.; Richmond, Va.; Newark, N.J.; and Madison, Wis.

Though Pastula considered many factors, she said that when considering fair chance housing legislation, it is especially important to look at data on recidivism.

This was a focus in her work on Detroit’s ordinance, she said, as the city’s policy allows landlords to deny potential tenants based on the amount of time that has passed since their crime was committed.

“When we’re talking about five years outside of a misdemeanor, seven years outside of a felony . . . when you start kind of setting those timeframes, you really want the data to back [it] up,” she said.

In an email from Aug. 18, 2023 , Pastula wrote that she also used a 2009 study, “Redemption in the Presence of Widespread Criminal Background Checks” by the American Society of Criminology. Through this study, she wrote that very old criminal records are not useful in predicting the risk of recidivism.

“A 2009 statistical study focused on ex-offenders who remained crime free for an extended period of time. It found that individuals with a criminal record are at no greater criminal risk after they have been out of prison for 7-10 years than individuals with no criminal record, demonstrating that very old criminal records are not useful (or reliable) in predicting risk of recidivism,” she wrote.

In an MDOC case study of 325 felony cases in Genesee County from 2019, the recidivism rate was 19.1%, meaning that 19.1% of the cases resulted in the person committing another offense within three years of release.

In an MDOC case study of 2,037 felony cases in Wayne County from 2019, where Detroit is located, the recidivism rate was 25.6%.

Since Detroit’s 2019 ordinance, Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor and Jackson, Mich. have also passed similar fair chance policies.

Potential obstacles to fair chance policy in Flint

Councilwoman Worthing said that she and Lewis had their first Fair Chance committee meeting on Aug. 2, 2023, where they talked about Detroit’s Fair Chance housing ordinance as a model for Flint.

“It was a good comparison to look at but we’re just not sure,” she said. “Before we make up a resolution, we want to ask Planning and Development if this is something we can enforce. As you know, the City of Flint has low staff so we may not be able to go as in-depth in enforcement as Detroit has, but we still want to put, you know, something in place that the City of Flint can handle.”

Worthing said once she and Lewis hear back from Flint Planning and Development Director Emily Doerr, they will meet again and draft a resolution that fits Flint.

While Flint’s city council committee is concerned about enforcement, other municipalities with fair chance policies in place say that has not been of great issue.

In the case of Jackson, Mich., Aaron Dimick, the public information officer for the city, wrote in an Aug. 18 email, that since the city’s fair chance housing ordinance was approved in March 2021, there has been just one reported violation.

The policy requires reported violations go through Jackson’s Community Development Department and then through the Human Relations Commission for review and enforcement. He said the city did not need to hire any new staff after passing the ordinance.

“It has not brought any extra cost to the City, as our staff is well versed in enforcing a multitude of ordinances,” he wrote.

Pastula said that enforcement was not a major concern when Detroit put together its ordinance either, as the city’s policy housed administration under CRIO and enforcement under the Detroit Police Department, which already existed when she wrote the ordinance.

“We were really lucky to have that [CRIO] department already created and already running,” she said.

A state-level solution

Outside of local jurisdictions, representatives at the state level are also considering fair chance housing legislation, as more than 4 million Michigan residents have some type of criminal background, according to Nation Outside.

State Rep. Abraham Aiyash (D-Hamtramck) introduced legislation in June 2022 known as the “Michigan Fair Chance Access to Housing Act.”

The policy would “prohibit landlords from requiring the disclosure of criminal history records for most housing applicants and allow formerly incarcerated individuals to have a fair chance at having their rental application approved.”

Howard Sanders walks to class at the University of Michigan-Flint on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

If passed, the policy would supersede any existing or non-existing policies in local jurisdictions, said Nation Outside’s Director of Policy and Program Operations, Tony Gant.

On June 16, 2022, the bill was sent to the House Regulatory Reform Committee, but that was the last action taken on the bill.

Still, Gant said continuing to pursue this type of legislation is especially important at the state level.

“Right now in the state of Michigan, it’s legal for a landlord to deny you housing simply for having a criminal conviction, which is making a mistake at some point in your life, which everybody has done,” he said.

He said a barrier to passing this type of legislation is that landlords often don’t like to be told what to do with their property.

“But this isn’t the first time the state has stepped in to tell landlords what they should and shouldn’t do,” he said, citing that current legislation that prohibits landlords from denying people access to housing because of their sexual orientation or race.

On June 28, 2023, Aiyash introduced House Bill 4878, another policy focused on fair chance housing throughout Michigan.

The policy states that after an application is received for a rental unit, a landlord can review the applicant’s income eligibility, rental history, credit score, pet restrictions, or other criteria and issue a conditional offer to the applicant if they satisfy those criteria.

However, if the landlord requires a criminal record disclosure, they must inform the applicant before accepting an application fee for the rental unit.

If a criminal record is considered, the applicant may be required to provide evidence of their rehabilitation or evidence of inaccuracies in their criminal record. According to the proposed policy, a landlord is only allowed to consider an applicant’s criminal record as grounds for denial if it includes a conviction for arson or human trafficking, or any other felony that has been adjudicated within 365 days.

If the landlord withdraws their conditional offer, they must notify the applicant within 24 hours and give their reason. The applicant can appeal that decision within 14 days, and the landlord can either grant the appeal or take action against the applicant, at which point the applicant can file a complaint with the Michigan Department of the Attorney General.

That complaint would launch an investigation that may result in a dismissal or a judgment on whether the landlord violated the policy. If it is determined the landlord violated the policy, they could face civil fines, payment to the applicant, or other relief the department deems “appropriate.”

The same day it was proposed, Aiyash’s June 2023 bill was sent to the Committee on Economic Development and Small Business.

Howard Sanders and his classmates watch a video during class at the University of Michigan-Flint on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)
Howard Sanders takes notes during class at the University of Michigan-Flint on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

Gant said the bill will likely be discussed during a committee meeting in September once the committee reconvenes.

He added that, as of right now, he believes the passage of a fair chance bill at the state level is more likely than the passing of an ordinance in Flint.

Flint’s ad-hoc committee is still considering what fair chance policies could look like for the city, but Worthing said they are waiting on a response from Doerr before they move forward with any proposed ordinance.

Flint Communications Director Caitie O’Neill wrote in an email on Sept. 1, 2023 that Worthing and Lewis sent Doerr an email requesting information on how to best go about writing the ordinance and Doerr’s team is currently working on it.

“We do not have a timeline right now,” O’Neill wrote in the Sept. 1 email.

Advocates say fair chance policies would be a positive step for justice-impacted Flint residents like Sanders, but Sanders said he just hopes to see any movement toward the life he was promised after serving his time.

“Upon my return back to society, it was more trials and more tribulations,” he said. “The odds were against me instead of being for me, as they said it was designed to do.”

Howard Sanders packs up his notebook after class at the University of Michigan-Flint on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

Sophia is Flint Beat's City Hall reporter. She joins the team after previously reporting for the Livingston Daily and the Lansing State Journal, along with some freelance work with The New York Times....

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1 Comment

  1. Talk to the family of the murdered person and see if they want to help the criminal. Let them have a conversation with him first.

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