Buying a house is difficult. Doing that while incarcerated is almost impossible.
While I was serving a sentence in a Washington state prison, I knew I would never own a home. As my wife and I began the process, we realized how difficult it was going to be.
I moved to Washington State when I was 8 years old. My mother had arrived just before me, fleeing my father’s abuses in a rusty, battered Toyota pickup, 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 both of us. To say we are poor would be an understatement.
As I 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 chalkboards, food stamps and duct tape to hold worn shoes together. I struggled in school and turned to petty crime to make ends meet. I soon became a regular in juvenile detention centers. At 22, I was in prison and serving a 45-year sentence for killing another person in a drug robbery.
After 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 homeownership seemed like a real possibility.
We started out as friends, fell in love, and started setting and achieving goals like normal couples do. At first, buying a home was just a dream, like the world trips we often talked about. We knew that once I got out of prison, a home of our own was the only way we could build a stable life. Many landlords refuse to rent apartments to people with criminal convictions, which can make it virtually impossible to find an apartment after incarceration. But buying a house would cost a lot more money than either of us had: Chelsea was a grad student and I was in prison. Still, we saved every extra dollar we could.
At first we didn’t even save for a house. We just wanted something in the bank. Neither of us had ever had significant savings, and it felt good to achieve that together. Once we had a little money saved, we learned how to invest it and eventually started making a return. After several years, we had saved $40,000. Our distant dream of buying a house was actually within reach.
I consider myself lucky to have made 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 sharp drop in annual earningswhich can last a lifetime even after imprisonment.
But Chelsea and I quickly learned that saving was just the first of many obstacles to buying a home.
American home ownership was conceived as a racist, exclusionary process — certainly not something inmates should participate in. As we did further research, we found that many of the requirements for a home loan during incarceration are almost impossible to meet due to the financial burden of the out-of-town spouse.
When we tried to get pre-approval on a home loan, we were told we could apply for a Federal Housing Administration loan that only required about a 3.5 percent haircut. FHA loans are government-backed mortgages that are popular with first-time homebuyers because they typically require lower minimum loan values and down payments than many traditional loans. But it was too good to be true: We’re told that FHA lenders consider the creditworthiness and debt levels of both spouses. Given that, Chelsea would have to independently qualify for a conventional loan, as my incarceration and credit history would be big red flags for most lenders. Requiring that the spouse of an incarcerated person be 100 percent responsible for a home loan represents a massive barrier to home ownership.
Since we didn’t have access to an FHA loan, we had to make a much larger down payment, which we were only able to do thanks to a loan from a family member. We were finally able to start looking for an apartment. We found a real estate agent who had an imprisoned family member, which made it easier to trust her to guide us through the process. Chelsea and our real estate agent have worked hard to keep me informed, sending 30-second video clips, detailed descriptions of each house and hundreds of photos through the prison’s email service, which charges us a fee for each communication in billed.
It was hard not to get attached to every house we looked at. Chelsea liked the ones with the big open bathrooms and walk-in closets; I longed for a garage, hardwood floors, and a strong fence. We made several bids, certain we had found our home, only to get the agent’s call telling us we had lost to a higher bid.
“We just have to keep looking,” the agent said.
After each rejection, we would move on to the next and start the process over. The further we got, the more stressful decisions we faced. How much money should we put down? Should we insist on prior checking? Should we offer to cover the closing costs in hopes of convincing the seller to accept our offer? We argued over these details, made up, and went straight back to it.
In January I called Chelsea and finally heard the words I had been waiting for: “We won the tender!”
It was a cute little craftsman house built in the early 1900’s in a beautiful area that Chelsea loved. We would become homeowners.
The relief we felt upon completing the search quickly faded when we learned the process was far from complete.
When we started looking for an apartment, we were pre-approved a loan at an interest rate of 3.25 percent. Since then, the interest rate had risen to 3.9 percent — still historically low, but high enough to increase our mortgage payments by $300 a month. The additional costs made the house almost unaffordable. From prison, it’s not like I could just take on extra work to fill the gap. But with real estate prices rising every day, this seemed like 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 fell ill with COVID-19. That meant I would be dragged there medical isolation in prison– effective 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 would need my notarized signature on several documents, an almost impossible task for someone in prison with COVID-19. If we didn’t find a way to provide my signature, the deal would fall through and we could lose the $20,000 we had in escrow.
When I unsuccessfully asked the guards to bring me the papers, Chelsea tried to convince the loan officer to allow her to sign on my behalf. In the end, the officer was able to change the type of loan program, allowing him to accept a power of attorney signature.
That we lost nearly $20,000 of our life savings was a stark reminder that incarcerated people are not meant to buy homes — and those who marry us risk facing the same restrictions.
I came out of medical isolation on February 14th, the same day Chelsea got the keys to our house. But this new chapter looks different for us than it does 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 in the doorway of our new bedroom. I will not 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 turn.