Background checks could be next for Aspen worker housing
October 6, 2010
ASPEN – A proposal to run criminal background checks on applicants for worker housing in Aspen and Pitkin County left some county commissioners uneasy on Tuesday, though they didn’t reject the idea.
Tom Smith, attorney for the local Housing Authority, has recommended the added screening, said Housing Director Tom McCabe.
“We’ve had a number of people get into our housing who’ve had a problem,” he said. “We’d like to have the ability to look for these people and screen them out ahead of time.”
The housing program, which provides both rental and sale units to local workers, has long checked an applicant’s qualifications. But the focus has been on making sure the individual is employed in the county, works a sufficient number of hours each year, and doesn’t have assets or other property that would make them ineligible for the subsidized housing.
“We have always been pretty permissive here,” McCabe said. “Every once in awhile, we regret it.”
Now, the Housing Authority would also like to consider an applicant’s criminal record, past housing problems and lease violations. As a starting point, the authority is considering federal Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines as a basis for denying housing to an applicant. Someone who’s rejected could appeal to the Housing Board.
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The HUD guidelines would allow rejection of an applicant for drug-related criminal activity or illegal drug use; a pattern of alcohol abuse or criminal activity that interferes with the health, safety or peaceful enjoyment of the premises by others; and violent criminal activity. Persons who are lifetime registered sex offenders could also be rejected.
Both commissioners and McCabe questioned how much time should pass before someone convicted of a criminal offense, for example, should be considered rehabilitated and eligible for housing.
“I don’t have a magic formula with this,” McCabe said.
“Many people who have a history like that are making an effort to leave that history behind,” Commissioner Michael Owsley noted.
The Housing Authority at one time rented a unit to an individual who had been convicted of murder, McCabe said. The individual had served a prison sentence, and the agency felt he had paid his debt to society, McCabe explained.
Currently, an individual who is on probation has been rented a unit on a month-to-month lease, with a warning that he will get booted if he doesn’t toe the line, McCabe said.
The downturn in the economy seems to be causing stress and an uptick in trouble, he added.
Drunk and disorderly conduct can upset everyone in a complex and leave other tenants fearing for their safety, he said.
“The peaceful enjoyment of the other tenants is something we’re responsible for, as well,” McCabe said.
Nonetheless, some commissioners weren’t anxious to see the agency begin conducting background checks. Commissioner Patti Kay-Clapper asked how much time and money such an effort would require and pointed out that every applicant would have to be subjected to the same review.
“I have real concerns about this,” said Commissioner Jack Hatfield. “There’s the very strong potential for this to be arbitrary to the point of being oppressive or draconian.”
Commissioner Rachel Richards suggested there would need to be different reviews for prospective renters versus buyers.
Commissioner George Newman, however, voiced support for the background checks.
“For me, employee housing is not a right, it’s a privilege,” he said. “I’m comfortable with being able to ask these questions, because you’re putting at risk, possibly, the next-door neighbor.”
The screening process must be approved by both commissioners and the Aspen City Council before it becomes part of the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority guidelines.