A van pulls over on 16th Street NE and several young black men hop out. Walking by is Maurice Alexander, a lifelong Washingtonian in his sixties, on his way home from a friend’s house. Alexander watches the men from the van as they scoop up what looks like various electronics, discarded on the curb.
The van gets as far as the next stoplight before four white Metropolitan Police Department officers rush up on foot, hands on their guns. Alexander hears one of the men in the van yell, “What did we do?” The answer is shouted back: “Receiving stolen goods.”
“They got those off the ground,” Alexander protests, from the sidewalk. One of the cops gets in his face, tells him to mind his own business.
Alexander points his fingers back at the officer. He says, “I want to be a witness.”
And just like that, Alexander is in handcuffs, charged with “attempted threat,” a misdemeanor. He receives probation and ten days in jail.
Seven years later, all for pointing his fingers, Alexander found himself homeless.
Elliot Mincberg, an attorney with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, says even minor brushes with the law leave ripple effects lasting far beyond when a fine was paid or sentence served, making it hard to get a job, housing, and other necessities. Public and assisted housing providers are allowed to screen applicants for their criminal histories, but Mincberg says it’s over-enforced and frequently far beyond the legal guidelines laid out in the Fair Housing Act.
“It should have been over and done with,” he says of Alexander’s misdemeanor. “To say that that conviction should continue to have consequences on Mr. Alexander seven years later and literally render him homeless is a really bad thing.”
Alexander, now 69, had always had a home. He grew up in a large, corner house on the 1300 block of Maryland Avenue NE. He attended Federal City College (now the University of the District of Columbia) and obtained a paralegal certificate from George Washington University. He became active with civil rights causes and organizations that assist offenders returning to the community from prison.
Eventually, the only ones left in the family home were his elderly mother and aunt. Alexander’s brother took over the mortgage and Alexander moved in to take care of the relatives, obtaining a nursing assistant certification in 2005 and a home health care aide certification in 2008.
He and his brother made decisions before their elderly family members passed away. His brother would put the house on the market. As for Alexander, “Because I’m a very old person,” he says, winking, “the plan was I’d go to live in a senior citizens’ home and just live out the rest of my days. I’m not so sure I wanted the responsibility of the house anyway.”
He applied for public housing with the District of Columbia Housing Authority well ahead of his aunt’s and mother’s passing, and was placed on a waiting list. When it came his turn, DCHA referred Alexander to properties owned by three rental property management companies, who each receive federal funding to provide subsidized housing. He submitted applications to all three last March, April, and May.
They all denied him. “Criminal – Misdemeanor Conviction(s) or Pending Case,” read one such denial, from Capitol Gateway Family at 201 58th St. NE.
Meanwhile, the family house was sold. Alexander’s brother moved to Chicago shortly after, in April 2014. Alexander scrambled to find a place to stay. “I had to sleep on people’s couches, in cars, under bridges, homeless shelters,” he says. “You know, I really went into a state of depression.”
One of the friends who hosted Alexander, Sherri Boulet, remembers the stress on Alexander at the time.
“He kept saying he didn’t want to be a burden to anyone,” she says. “I’m telling him, ‘You’re not a burden, you can stay here as long as you like.’ But pride, you know, a man’s pride. I wanted him to stay with me opposed to going to a shelter because you’ll be surrounded by strangers. You don’t want to close your eyes.”
Still, Alexander only stayed with Boulet for a couple of weeks. “The standstill with the housing people, it was just a mess,” she says. “I don’t know what took them so long and why they were being so difficult with him.”
At one point, he slept under the L Street Bridge.
“There’s a misconception about people under those bridges,” Alexander says, “them all being alcoholics and drug addicts. They’re people just like me. Only difference between me and them is that I had some idea of what to do, and wasn’t afraid, and was persistent enough.”
Alexander contacted Legal Aid of the District of Columbia, and attorney Rachel Rintelmann went to work filing appeals with each of the properties, asking for a hearing. “I sent letters explaining that federal law does not allow you to deny housing on this basis alone,” Rintelmann says. “We never heard from them, which is not terribly surprising but incredibly frustrating.”
Rintelmann also contacted each of the property managers, asking for copies of their Tenant Selection Plan, a document that HUD requires assisted housing providers to publish and make available to anyone who asks.
“In most cases, they didn’t know what a Tenant Selection Plan was,” Rintelmann says. “When I got involved and started explaining it was required, then what they provided was either clearly not a plan or not consistent with what’s required by law. The one property that actually had one, they had clearly violated their own plan.
“It shocks the conscience that he’d be denied housing based on a seven-year-old misdemeanor.”
Rintelmann realized that Alexander’s case was a perfect example for a report on collateral consequences of arrests and convictions Mincberg and the attorneys with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee were writing. She made the introduction, and Mincberg included Alexander as a case study in the report. Then he went a step further, and filed a lawsuit on his behalf.
The lawsuit names A&R Management Inc., Edgewood Management Corp., and Community Preservation and Development Corp., the owners of the individual properties who allegedly left Alexander out in the cold.
Not named in the suit is the DCHA. It would be ideal if that agency could hold its contractors accountable for following Fair Housing Act laws, but that’s just too much to ask, Mincberg says: “It’s hard to fault them, at least in this case. After all, they did certify that Mr. Alexander is perfectly eligible for assisted housing.”
After six months of homelessness, DCHA managed to find Alexander a place to live: a DCHA-owned senior home on 4th Street NW. It’s safe, it’s clean; there’s a community garden, there’s a library nearby.
“Most people, when something like this happens, they’re so accustomed to it,” Alexander says. “They just say well, I’ll go to church and maybe Jesus will step in or something, I don’t know. But me, I get pissed off, man, because I knew it was wrong, I knew it was unjustified, and I needed someone to help.”
The case is pending, but the next time Alexander points his finger, it will be in U.S. District Court.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery