A new lease on life

A new lease on life

A new lease on life -

Carol Clarke stands in her rental office in one of her U-District homes. She began renting rooms to sex offenders, felons, and the mentally disabled 15 years ago.

Photo by Joshua Bessex

A new lease on life

A new lease on life

A new lease on life

A new lease on life

A yellowed page of an old newspaper is taped to the wall of Carol Clarke’s aging U-District rental office. In bold letters, it reads: “Abstinence. It works every time.” Jesus looks down from several paintings atop the windowsill, and a “no smoking” sign hangs crookedly behind the desk.

Most people have retired by their mid-70s. But Clarke, 74, is still on the job, renting rooms in her five U-District homes to sex offenders, felons, and the mentally disabled. Clarke believes that everybody deserves a home and a second chance.

“I just feel like if a person is interested in becoming a better human being, then someone better give him a leg up,” she said.

Often times, it’s difficult for sex offenders and felons to find housing, so Clarke is well known behind prison bars and among law enforcement officials. 

How it all began

Born in Tacoma and raised in Seattle, Clarke spent the first eight years of her life on a chicken farm. 

Many years later, she still hasn’t outgrown her affinity for animals. Now widowed, Clarke lives alone on her farm in Snohomish. When she’s not busy tending to her cows and chickens, she is hard at work interviewing prospective renters, filling out leases, and sorting out details with officials at the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Seattle Police Department (SPD) with regard to her tenants.

Although Clarke has been leasing her homes for many years, she only began renting to people with criminal records 15 years ago.

It began when she found out one of her tenants was a sex offender. Clarke consulted the man’s corrections officer, then gave her tenant a firm talking to. His determination to change, Clarke said, is what inspired her to continue renting to criminals.

“Do you think [that] because a guy did something really, really stupid that he should be condemned for his entire life, if he changes his life?” she asked.

Clarke has been renting out rooms in her U-District properties to sex offenders and felons ever since. Many of the houses are only a few-minutes walking distance from the UW campus.

Community reactions

While unorthodox, Clarke firmly believes that her housing system does not pose a threat to neighboring residents.

“If you put groups of sex offenders together, everybody thinks that’s a bad thing, when in reality, when you put them in these cells, they’re super quiet, like in Carol’s area,” said MacGregor Gordon, a detective in the SPD’s sex offender and kidnapping unit who has been working with Clarke for 10 years. 

In fact, Clarke won’t rent to students because she believes they cause more trouble than her tenants do.

“They’re brats,” Clarke said. “In September, when they come around looking for rooms, I say, ‘I’m sorry; I will rent to felons. I will rent to sex offenders. I will rent to the mentally challenged, and I won’t rent to you.’”

UW senior and psychology major Ross Yeilding lives next door to one of Clarke’s homes and does not think neighboring residents have anything to fear.

“No more than you have to worry about [safety] in any other urban area,” Yeilding said. “It just kind of comes with the territory. We live in a large city and there are going to be felons and sex offenders living amongst us.”

David Hotz, the UW’s director of fraternity and sorority life, said he has not received any complaints about Clarke’s tenants, and he, like Yeilding, is not concerned about the situation.

“Quite honestly … if the lady is operating things within the law and they have a right to exist within the law, then so be it,” Hotz said. “I trust that the authorities … wouldn’t release them to that neighborhood unless it was a safe situation.”

UW Police Department (UWPD) Cmdr. Steve Rittereiser echoed these remarks when he said he doesn’t believe there is any reason to have a “heightened awareness” around the rental homes. The UWPD has not received any recent complaints about Clarke’s tenants.

Mark Janney, a community corrections supervisor at the DOC, said that Clarke “runs a good program.”

But, Janney added, “I also think it’s concerning to have a whole house full of sex offenders in that kind of an area … I would be uncomfortable if my daughter were in a house next door.”

Controversy in 2007

Six years ago, university and state officials took action to force registered sex offenders recently released from prison, and under the supervision of the DOC, to leave Clarke’s housing. Former UW President Mark Emmert took his concerns to Gov. Chris Gregoire, who agreed that the tenants should be removed. The DOC complied under pressure, and Clarke lost 14 tenants in one month.

“We didn’t think, and still don’t think, it’s a good idea to house those folks in the middle of a college-age population … It’s that simple,” said Norm Arkans, the UW’s associate vice president for media relations and communications.

To this day, Clarke is upset by the action. She claims that neither she nor the Seattle Police Department had received complaints concerning her renters. Yet, of the 14 tenants who were instructed to leave, Clarke said one committed suicide, two ended up homeless, and several were forced to leave their jobs.

“They didn’t think ahead whatsoever as far as … the repercussions of making that decision,” Gordon said.

Clarke is still prohibited from renting to sex offenders who are under DOC supervision, although she may rent to felons who are. She hopes that one day, she will again be permitted to provide homes to sex offenders just out of prison.

“They took a program that worked, and shattered it,” Clarke said. “It’s a cryin’ shame that they interrupted it.”

A mom, not a friend

Finding new tenants is not a difficult task for Clarke. In fact, it’s not really a task at all. Many of her tenants learn about her business through word of mouth, and others are referred to Clarke by the DOC or SPD. But she doesn’t take just anyone. Clarke leads intense interviews with every potential tenant and conducts in-depth research on their personal and criminal histories. During interviews, she closely observes their body language, which, she said, can reveal a lot about a person. She tells interviewees to convince her that they genuinely want to become better people.

Those who make the cut begin a new life under the roof of one of Clarke’s homes. The process is painful and requires sex offenders and felons to change their opinions of themselves, she said.

Clarke, who calls herself “Mother Hubbard,” loves all of her tenants, but explained that her love is a tough kind of love. Her renters often address her as “Mom,” but she makes it clear that she is not their friend.

“I’m a little gray-headed, wrinkle-faced old lady, but I’m a tough broad,” Clarke said. “Be bad, and you will see a side of [me] that you didn’t know existed, and you’d wish to God that you’d never met me.”

While she believes everyone deserves a second chance, Clarke does not give her tenants a third. She maintains a strict set of regulations in all of her houses — no drinking, no drugs, and no overnight company, unless previously arranged — and has no qualms about kicking out tenants who disobey the rules. She removed four tenants last month alone.

“If they don’t care about themselves enough to turn their lives around, why should I care?” Clarke said.

But nearly all of her tenants stay quiet and tolerate the rules.

“Most of them are just so grateful I’ve taken them; they’ll do anything,” Clarke said.

But occasionally, she’ll encounter problems. The most frequent issue is drug use, which she claims is more common among the felons in her houses than the sex offenders and is often the reason Clarke asks her tenants to leave.

“You just don’t want to mess with Carol,” Gordon said. “She is very determined, [and] extremely knowledgeable … about sex offenders and how they think. That’s why a lot of her renters have no plans on leaving at all.”

Gordon added that none of the tenants he has worked with in her housing have reoffended. 

Clarke has numerous success stories to share. One of her tenants is a convicted murderer and sex offender.

“This guy and I had a lot of wars initially, [but] he has turned out to be a lovely, devoted Christian person,” Clarke said. “He’s changed. He’s a different person. He’s not the guy who did whatever he did.”

Reflecting on her brood, Clarke added: “I don’t look at them and see ‘sex offender’ tattooed on their forehead. I look at them and see a human being who is treating me respectfully.”

A higher calling

Faith plays a significant role in Clarke’s life and is a large part of what inspired her to begin doing what she does.

She describes God as the very core of her being. But while Clarke’s faith is paramount in her own life, she does not push her beliefs on her tenants.

Clarke plans to continue renting rooms in her U-District homes and helping her tenants turn their lives around.

“I have seen life changes in people that have done something they shouldn’t [have],” Clarke said. “And if it’s a sin to help them make those changes, then I guess I’m one heck of a sinner.”

Reach reporter Lily Katz at features@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @LilyKatz

Please read our Comment policy.