Buying a home is difficult. Doing it while incarcerated is nearly impossible.
While serving time in a Washington State prison, I was certain I would never own a house. When my wife and I started the process, we discovered how difficult it would be.
I moved to Washington state when I was 8 years old. My mother 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 spot for the two of us. To say we were poor would be an understatement.
As we got older, we made enough money to move into a trailer, then an apartment, and finally a rental house, but our financial situation never really changed. We relied on food banks, food stamps, and duct tape to hold worn-out shoes together. I struggled at school and turned to petty crime to make ends meet. I quickly became a regular at juvenile detention centers. At 22, I was in prison, serving a 45-year sentence for killing another person during a drug robbery.
Facing decades behind bars, I was certain that I would never own a home. But 17 years into my sentence, I met Chelsea – the woman who is now my wife – and home ownership started to look like a real possibility.
We started as friends, fell in love, and started setting and achieving goals, like normal couples do. In the beginning, buying a house was just a dream, like the trips around the world we often talked about. We knew having our own home was the only chance we would have to build a stable life together once we got out of prison. Many landlords refuse to rent homes to people with felony convictions, which can make it nearly impossible to find housing after incarceration. But buying a house would cost a lot more money than we both had: Chelsea was a grad student and I was in jail. 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 realize that together. Once we had saved some money, we learned how to invest it and finally started generating a return. After several years, we had saved $40,000. Our distant dream of buying a house was actually within reach.
I considered myself lucky to have come this far. Despite the difficulties I encountered, I knew that few of my peers would ever have the opportunity to even consider buying a home. Research has shown that criminal convictions and imprisonment are associated with severe reductions in annual revenuewhich can last a lifetime even after incarceration.
But Chelsea and I quickly learned that saving money was just the first of many obstacles to buying a home.
American homeownership was designed to be a racist, exclusive process—certainly not something those in prison are expected to participate in. As we did more research, we found that many conditions for a home loan are nearly impossible to meet while incarcerated, leaving the financial burden on the spouse who is out.
When we tried to get pre-approved for a home loan, we were told that we could apply for a loan from the Federal Housing Administration which would only require about 3.5% down payment. FHA loans are government-backed mortgages popular with first-time home buyers because they typically require minimum credit scores and lower down payments than many conventional loans. But it was too good to be true: We were told that FHA lenders take into account the credit history and debt ratio of both spouses. Given this, Chelsea should independently qualify for a conventional loan, as my incarceration and credit history would raise major red flags for most lenders. Requiring an incarcerated spouse to be 100% responsible for a home loan presents a massive barrier to home ownership.
Since we couldn’t access an FHA loan, we had to provide a much larger down payment, which we could only do with a loan from a family member. Finally, we were able to start looking for houses. We found a real estate agent who had a family member incarcerated, which made it easier for us to trust him to guide us through the process. Chelsea and our realtor worked hard to keep me up to date, sending 30 second video clips, detailed descriptions of each house and hundreds of photos to the prison messaging service, which charged us a fee for each communication.
It was hard not to become attached to every house we visited. Chelsea liked those with large open bathrooms and walk-in closets; I longed for a garage, wooden floors and a sturdy fence. We made several offers, certain of having found our house, only to receive the call from the agent telling us that we had lost to a higher offer.
“We’ll just have to keep looking,” the agent said.
After each rejection, we move on to the next one and start the process again. The further we went, the more stressful decisions we had to make. How much money should we put? Should we insist on a pre-inspection? Should we offer to pay closing costs in hopes of convincing the seller to accept our offer? We argued over these details, made up and went back.
In January, I called Chelsea and finally heard the words I had been waiting for: “We won the auction!”
It was a lovely little craftsman house built in the early 1900’s in a beautiful area that Chelsea loved. We were going to be owners.
The relief we felt after completing the research quickly faded when we learned that the process was far from over.
When we started looking for a house, we were pre-approved for a loan at an interest rate of 3.25%. The rate had since risen to 3.9%, still historically low, but high enough to increase our mortgage payments by $300 per month. The extra cost almost made the house unaffordable. From prison, it’s not like I could just take on extra work to fill the gap. But with house prices rising every day, we 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 the scheduled closing, I contracted COVID-19. It meant that I would be drawn towards 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 documents, an almost impossible task for someone with COVID-19 in jail. 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 begged the guards to bring me the papers in vain, Chelsea struggled to convince the loan officer to allow her to sign on my behalf. In the end, the agent was able to change the type of loan program, which allowed him to accept a power of attorney signature.
Coming this close to losing $20,000 of our life savings was a stark reminder that incarcerated people aren’t supposed to buy homes, and those who marry us risk facing the same limitations.
I came out of medical isolation on February 14, the same day Chelsea got the keys to our house. But this new chapter looks different for us than for most first-time buyers: I won’t be there to paint the walls with my wife. I won’t be able to kiss her on the threshold of our new room. I won’t see our dog dig his first hole in our yard. But it still felt like a triumph. We defied the odds and forced our way into a system that fought us every step of the way.