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Buying a Home Is Hard. Doing It While Incarcerated Is Nearly Impossible.

Serving out a sentence in a Washington state prison, I was certain I’d never own a home. When my wife and I started the process, we found out just how difficult it would be.

Tierra Mallorca/Unsplash

Buying a Home Is Hard. Doing It While Incarcerated Is Nearly Impossible.

Serving out a sentence in a Washington state prison, I was certain I’d never own a home. When my wife and I started the process, we found out just how difficult it would be.

I moved to Washington state when I was 8 years old. My mom had arrived shortly before me, fleeing my father’s abuse in a rusty, dented Toyota pickup truck, with nothing but a tent and a bag or two of clothes. She pitched her tent on a farmer’s property, where she picked strawberries until she could afford a place for the two of us. To say we were poor would be an understatement.

As I got older, we made enough money to move to a trailer, then an apartment, and finally a rental house—but our financial status never really changed. We relied on food banks, food stamps, and duct tape to hold worn-out shoes together. I struggled in school and turned to petty crime to make ends meet. I soon became a regular in juvenile detention centers. By 22, I was in prison serving a 45-year sentence for taking another person’s life in a drug robbery. 

Facing decades behind bars, I was certain I’d never own a home. But 17 years into my sentence, I met Chelsea—the woman who is now my wife—and homeownership began to seem like a real possibility.

We started as friends, fell in love, and began to set and achieve goals, as normal couples do. At first, buying a home was just a dream, like the world travels we often talked about. We knew that having our own home was the only chance we’d have to build a stable life together once I got out of prison. Many landlords refuse to rent homes to people with felony convictions, which can make it virtually impossible to find a place to live after incarceration. But buying a home would take a lot more money than either of us had: Chelsea was a graduate student and I was in prison. Still, we saved every extra dollar we could. 

We weren’t even saving for a house at first. We just wanted to have something in the bank. Neither of us had ever had substantial savings, and it felt good to achieve that together. Once we had a little cash saved up, we learned how to invest it and eventually started to generate a return. After several years, we had saved $40,000. Our distant dream of buying a house was actually within reach.

I considered myself fortunate just to make it this far. Despite the difficulties I faced, I knew that few of my peers would ever get the opportunity to even consider buying a home. Research has shown that criminal convictions and imprisonment are associated with severe reductions in annual earnings, which can last a lifetime even after incarceration.

But Chelsea and I quickly learned that saving money was only the first of many barriers to buying a home.

American homeownership was designed to be a racist, exclusionary process—surely not something those in prison are meant to participate in. As we did more research, we found that many of the qualifications for a home loan are nearly impossible to meet while incarcerated, leaving the financial burden on the spouse who is on the outside.

When we tried to get pre-approved for a home loan we were informed we could apply for a Federal Housing Administration loan that would only require around 3.5 percent down. FHA loans are government-backed mortgages popular with first-time homebuyers because they typically require lower minimum credit scores and down payments than many conventional loans. But it was too good to be true: We were told FHA lenders take into account both spouses’ credit history and debt ratio. Given this, Chelsea would have to independently qualify for a conventional loan, as my incarceration and credit history would raise major red flags for most lenders. Requiring the spouse of an incarcerated person to be 100 percent responsible for a home loan presents a massive roadblock to homeownership.

Because we couldn’t access an FHA loan, we would have to come up with a much more substantial down payment, which we could only do thanks to a loan from a family member. Finally, we were able to begin looking for homes. We found a real estate agent who had an incarcerated family member, which made it easier to trust her to guide us through the process. Chelsea and our real estate agent worked hard to keep me in the loop, sending 30-second video clips, detailed descriptions of each home, and hundreds of photos over the prison’s email service, which charged us a fee for every communication.

It was hard not to get attached to every home we looked at. Chelsea liked the ones with the large open bathrooms and walk-in closets; I yearned for a garage, wooden floors, and a strong fence. We placed several offers, certain we had found our house, only to get the call from the agent telling us we’d lost out to a higher offer. 

“We’ll just have to keep looking,” the agent said.

After each rejection, we’d move on to the next one and start the process all over again. The further along we got, the more stressful decisions we faced. How much money should we put down? Should we insist on a pre-inspection? Should we offer to pay for closing costs in hopes of convincing the seller to accept our offer? We argued over those details, made up, and went right back to it. 

In January, I called Chelsea and finally heard the words I’d been waiting for: We won the bid!

It was a cute little Craftsman home built in the early 1900s in a beautiful area that Chelsea loved. We were going to be homeowners. 

Whatever relief we felt after completing the search quickly faded as we learned that the process was far from over.

When we started looking for a home, we were pre-approved for a loan at an interest rate of 3.25 percent. The rate had since risen to 3.9 percent—still historically low, but high enough to raise our mortgage payments by $300 a month. The additional cost nearly made the house unaffordable. From prison, it’s not like I could just pick up extra work to bridge the gap. But with housing prices rising every day, it felt like this might be our last chance, so we combed through our monthly expenses and found places to tighten our belts. We had come too far to lose the house now.

Ten days before we were scheduled to close, I contracted COVID-19. That meant I would be dragged off to medical isolation in prison—effectively solitary confinement—with severely restricted access to phone and email. Chelsea has full power of attorney in my name, but because my name was on the deed, she was told they needed my notarized signature on several pieces of paperwork, a nearly impossible task for someone with COVID-19 in prison. If we couldn’t find a way to produce my signature, the deal would fall apart and we could lose the $20,000 we had placed in escrow. 

As I unsuccessfully begged the guards to bring me the paperwork, Chelsea worked to convince the loan officer to allow her to sign on my behalf. In the end, the officer was able to switch the type of loan program, which let them accept a power of attorney signature. 

Coming that close to losing $20,000 of our savings was a stark reminder that incarcerated people are not meant to buy homes—and that those who marry us risk facing the same limitations.

I got out of medical isolation on Feb. 14, the same day Chelsea got the keys to our home. But this new chapter looks different for us than for most first-time homebuyers: I won’t be there to paint the walls with my wife. I won’t get to kiss her in the doorway of our new bedroom. I won’t get to see our dog dig his first hole in our yard. But it still felt like a triumph. We beat the odds and forced our way into a system that fought us at every step.

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