Question: I started drinking alcohol and using drugs when I was in high school, and I kept it up until recently. I didn't think I had a problem because I have maintained good grades in school and held a steady job. Last year, I was stopped by the police for driving under the influence. When the police searched my car, they found a pipe and a backpack with crack cocaine.
I pleaded guilty to felony drug possession. As part of my sentence, I completed a government-mandated drug rehabilitation program, and I have been clean since then. The expenses from the case mean I need to find a cheaper apartment. However, most of the property managers for communities where I apply tell me they can't rent to me because their policies prohibit them from renting to applicants with felony convictions. Is there anything I can do?
Answer: The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of disability. A disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of person's "major life activities." This definition covers people recovering from alcoholism or drug addiction.
Individuals like you who have successfully completed a drug treatment program are protected under the disability provisions of the Fair Housing Act. This means that a landlord cannot refuse to rent to you solely because of a history of drug addiction, since you are in recovery. Your history of abusing drugs in the past may not be an accurate measure of your current ability to be a good tenant.
However, the law does not protect people who are currently using illegal drugs or people who cause a direct threat to the health or safety of other residents. Your challenge is that your prior drug use resulted in a criminal conviction.
Landlords have a duty to provide peaceful enjoyment of the premises to their tenants and to avoid having illegal activity, particularly use of illegal drugs, on their property. From this perspective, your recent conviction raises a reasonable suspicion that you might engage in similar activities, which could permit landlords to deny your application even if they ignore your history of drug addiction.
One suggestion is to live in an environment that won't screen you for a criminal record or in a residential setting established for recovering drug addicts. In that type of housing, you could establish a history of law-abiding behavior. Once time passes, you could ask housing providers to view your conviction as ancient history that shouldn't raise a concern about future violations.
Eichner is director of Housing Counseling Programs for Project Sentinel, a mediation service based in Sunnyvale, Calif. To submit a question, go to http://www.housing.org.