Steven Terrasas has played by the rules for the past seven years. He’s been a model citizen, a hardworking student and a devoted husband and father. Yet a punch he threw just months after his 18th birthday continues to haunt him.
“I guess I was kind of aware, at the time, that I was messing up my own life when I was younger and getting into trouble,” Terrasas said. “But, like, I never realized how much it was going to affect my wife and kids. Yeah, I can’t get an apartment. But they’re not just denying me. They’re denying my wife and my two children, who have never done anything wrong.”
Terrasas graduated from Spokane Falls Community College in June. While there, he earned an associate’s degree in business, served as the student body president and impressed his professors, the school president and trustees.
Yet, basic things, like finding a place to live, are a struggle.
Terrasas’ story is unusual – but only because he has so thoroughly turned his life around.
“It’s really defeating,” he said.
Criminal histories are an easy way for landlords to screen prospective tenants, said Center for Justice lawyer Barry Pfundt, who focuses on housing and discrimination issues.
It is not illegal, and there is nothing prohibiting a property owner from searching public records.
“Once you make a mistake, with all these databases and everything, it’s really hard to move on,” Pfundt said.
Renters are further disadvantaged because there are plenty of people trying to find places to live. Spokane’s 2015 rental vacancy rate is roughly 3 percent, according to a Washington state Department of Commerce report. That means landlords have ample rental applications, and any ding on the applicant’s record can knock them from consideration.
“As long as they’re filling units they can choose who they want to rent to,” Pfundt said.
‘With the Plaza rats’
Terrasas was born in Oakland, California. When he was 5 ½ years old, he moved to Humboldt County along with his mom, two brothers and a sister. His mother worked at a casino in Trinidad, California, where she injured her back. That led to surgery, which led to unemployment.
So they moved to Deer Park, where his uncle lived. Terrasas was 14 years old when life got rough.
“I got picked on a lot,” said Terrasas, who is part Hispanic. He was chased by boys in pickups, called names and beaten up, he said.
He lost interest in school as his mom, spurred by chronic pain from surgery, spiraled into pill addiction. She stopped working, and the family struggled without enough money. Terrasas remembers his mother yelling at him for eating too much.
So he moved out.
“I just started staying on the streets,” he said. “Hanging out with the Plaza rats and whatnot.”
No simple fix
Landlords have good reason for screening housing applications, national housing expert Ron Leshnower said. Adopting a more lax screening policy may expose the landlord to liability issues if another tenant becomes a crime victim.
“A landlord has to protect their investments,” said Rob Trickler, head of the Washington Rental Owners Association.
Trickler is an Everett lawyer who specializes in evictions and landlord rights. He’s seen properties wrecked by tenants, and landlords sued for allowing tenants with criminal convictions. A current client is being sued by three separate tenants following a hash oil explosion. The tenant suspected of cooking the oil had no criminal background, Trickler said.
That’s the tricky part: There are people such as Terrasas who have moved beyond their criminal histories, but there also are compelling and valid reasons for landlords to screen for criminal convictions.
“It’s a problem without an easy resolution,” Leshnower said.
Respected student and father
Terrasas didn’t just graduate from college, he graduated with aplomb.
“He’s really gained the respect of everyone in the administration and faculty who have worked with him,” SFCC President Janet Gullickson said. “If there is kind of an iconic student for community colleges, it’s Steven.”
That respect was no sure thing. For much of his life, Terrasas said, he has been treated as a problem.
After moving out of his mother’s home, Terrasas bounced from place to place. Although he attempted to stay in school in Deer Park, he eventually dropped out. For a time he lived at a friend’s home. His mom, who’d moved to Spokane, would pay the friend $70 a month so Terrasas could live there; she stopped paying after a few months.
Over the course of the next four years he went to three different schools. Rogers High School expelled him twice. He also spent time in juvenile detention for stealing a car, he said.
Terrasas knows he made mistakes. But he also thinks many times the situation was blown out of proportion or misunderstood.
Like the 2008 assault charge.
That started, he said, when he confronted two other homeless kids he’d previously fought. Inside River Park Square mall, he punched first and was charged with assault.
“The judge was like, ‘Man you’re a career criminal,’ ” Terrasas said.
Despite the strife, Terrasas found a bright spot. In 2005, he met his future wife, Bailey, through a mutual friend. They fell in love. Through the help of her father, a military contractor, they spent half a year working in Germany on a military base. That gave Terrasas a needed break from his problems in Spokane.
“You know you can always tell he’s a good guy,” Bailey said. “He’s really dorky. He’s never bad. Never mean.”
Bailey and Steven got married in 2010, shortly after Bailey got pregnant with their first child, Haiden. They both enrolled at SFCC in 2013 and graduated together this year.
Not fit for a pet
Terrasas is one of the estimated 65 million Americans with a criminal record. These men and women face similar problems finding housing, Pfundt said.
That need creates a whole different class of housing. In Spokane, there are landlords who don’t do background checks, or if they do, they ignore the results. In exchange for this anonymity, the landlords often charge higher rents. Pfundt has clients who pay top dollar for rentals that are substandard in every way: mold, broken windows, intermittent water pressure.
“I’ve been into units that I wouldn’t let a pet stay in, let alone a human being,” he said.
Julie Banks, who heads the public safety committee of the Rockwood Neighborhood Council, has been looking into the issue of substandard housing in Spokane. The main concern for Banks and others is the quality and safety of housing units. However, it’s a tricky problem: Increasing the quality of housing often means excluding anyone with a criminal conviction.
“I go back and forth,” Pfundt said. “Those landlords, in a way, are doing a service because they’re providing housing.”
‘A hell of a man’
For Terrasas, substandard housing isn’t an option. He’s a devoted dad who wants his two children, 5-year-old Haiden and 1-year-old Kylie, to have the best possible childhood.
“He is a good dad,” said Dean Astleford, Terrasas’ father-in-law. “I think he’s a better dad then I was.”
Astleford was hesitant when Terrasas started dating Bailey. But like others, Astleford was won over by his kindness and integrity.
“He could have easily gone the other way, easily,” said Tracy Astleford, Terrasas’ mother-in-law. “He’s become a hell of a man.”
For a while, he lived with his sister-in-law’s family in a duplex. Eight people living in a 1,000-square-foot home was far from ideal. Since graduating from college in June, he has applied to five apartment complexes.
“Every time I apply for an apartment I have to pay the application fee. I’m literally just giving people money,” Terrasas said.
With each denial, the couple felt more defeated.
Said Bailey Terrasas, “I’m honestly so used to getting let down.”
Finally, they broke down and applied for an apartment under Bailey’s name only. They’d resisted doing this because, ironically, it meant Terrasas would have to break the rules.
“I told them we were separated,” Bailey Terrasas said. “Yeah, I could get evicted for that. It could mess up my whole future of renting.”
Although it’s possible to expunge certain criminal records, Terrasas is not eligible because he was charged with assault. Terrasas was working as a painter over the summer, but that job ended last week. He is currently looking for work.
“I feel like I’ve done a lot to prove that I’m not the same person anymore,” Terrasas said. “But every time I apply for an apartment or a new job, they’re like, ‘Oh it says here city assault, you can’t work here because that’s a violent crime and our policy says we can’t hire violent people.’ ”
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