Housing board rejects criminal background checks
Local housing officials won’t institute criminal background checks on prospective tenants in employee housing, even though one tenant apparently tried to burn a housing complex down before he killed himself last March.The Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Board rejected criminal background checks on a 2-1 vote Wednesday, though some residents at Aspen Country Inn pressed the housing office to consider the criminal histories of applicants for apartments, given the events of last March at the complex.Aspen Country Inn, where local senior citizens are given priority to rent apartments, has made the headlines twice for criminal activity within its units, noted resident Sheryl Robinson.”I don’t think you’d want your 86-year-old mother in some of them, considering what has been occurring there,” she said.A drug arrest at the complex in 2003 was followed by the attempted arson this year. Tenants had alleged that Robert “Bill” Seawell, the man authorities concluded tried to burn the place down, had been involved in illegal drug activity. He had been facing eviction.A criminal background check on Seawell, however, would not have resulted in his disqualification as an applicant for a unit, according to Housing Director Maureen Dobson. In fact, he was apparently subjected to one, she said.”This is just basic protection of your tenants and basic risk management,” said Aspen Country Inn resident Rebecca Harlow, urging the board to implement the background investigations.Federally funded housing projects do conduct such background checks, but rejected tenants have sued and won, according to Julie Kieffer, housing qualifications specialist for the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority. Kieffer suggested prospective tenants be checked for a history of violent criminal activity and drug-related crimes, if the housing office does anything. Such a policy would require the approval of the Aspen City Council and Pitkin County commissioners.However, housing board member Ron Erickson called the events at Aspen Country Inn an aberration and said he wouldn’t support the background checks.”I don’t really see us having a big problem here,” he said. Board Chairwoman Sheri Sanzone agreed.Board member Marcia Goshorn was willing to pursue the background checks, but she argued the policy should apply at all rental projects managed by the housing authority, not just Aspen Country Inn.”I still don’t understand how you can apply it to certain projects. It’s all or nothing,” she said.”You’re right,” Dobson said. “From a Fair Housing standpoint, it really should apply across the board.”Though board members ultimately rejected the criminal background checks, they did agree to give credit checks a try for the next six months. No applicant will be rejected for failing to have good credit, but the housing office wants to know if the credit checks identify tenants who wind up failing to pay the rent on time.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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