Appropriate Criminal Background Checks Would Help Property Owners, Community Safety

By Anthony SanFilippo
October 2019

Starting in 2020, there will be a Just Housing Ordinance that goes into effect in Cook County.

What the rules will be for that ordinance though are still up in the air.

In September, more than 30 people spoke before the Cook County Board Rules and Administration Committee to weigh in on the structure of the rules before the new ordinance is implemented.

The Board agreed to take all comments into consideration and to present a suggestion to the Rules Committee later in the year.

The ordinance originally passed the County Board of Commissioners in April as an amendment to the county’s housing ordinance.

The amendment will prohibit landlords and property owners from seeking criminal background checks on potential tenants prior to them being qualified to rent the property.

The proposed rules would also limit housing providers from considering criminal convictions that are older than five years since convictions that are five years or older “do not represent a demonstrable risk to personal safety or property,” according to the language of the rules.

It creates a debate between the safety of the neighborhood and compassion for the rehabilitated former offenders.

Opponents of the new rules recognize the need to allow rehabilitated ex-offenders to have the opportunity to procure their own home but feel that many of the new rules go too far and are too risky when it comes to safety.

The Illinois Association of REALTORS® (IAR) has been among the most vocal organizations in support of property owners, championing the notion that screening criminal records is essential for landlords to minimize risk and to keep the communities in which their properties are located safer and more secure.

They argue that the proposed rules regarding “criminal background” (as written by the County’s Human Rights Commission) are extreme and unfair and should be modified to be more reasonable and workable for property owners.

“The proposal before you today acknowledges the importance of screening but it would still impose significant challenges for housing providers,” Dan Schermerhorn, a member of IAR, said at the meeting, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. “We hope these rules will be written carefully so that the property owners are not limited in their ability to ensure a safe and secure environment for their residents.”

IAR and other groups that support the property owners, believe that those owners must be able to ensure that their properties are going to be occupied by people who won’t commit crimes on the property or be a danger to other residents.

The revised rules, they argue, make that difficult.

Under the revisions, a property owner or manager would only be able to consider criminal convictions that are less than three years old.

This means that come Jan. 1, an owner would not be able to discriminate against a potential renter who was convicted of assault, armed robbery or even attempted murder as recently as Dec.,31, 2016.

Additionally, the revised rules require that properties be held of the market for 10 business days while an applicant with a criminal history disputes a finding in the criminal background report.

The housing provider then must either approve or deny the application within three business days.

While this is not a long time for property management companies, this can be a burden for the individual landlord who is simply trying to get a tenant into their property to cover the cost of the mortgage.

If you include weekends or holidays, this takes a property off the market for nearly three weeks, which essentially kills a month of potential earnings for the property owner, and no guarantee that the property will be rented.

IAR argues that this hold provision should be reduced or eliminated altogether. And that there should be a couple of key questions to consider before the new ordinance takes effect:

  1. How much control do property owners have in establishing a review process?

As passed, the Amendment doesn’t provide clear guidance on how a property owner should set up criteria for evaluating former offenders. This leaves some ambiguity and uncertainty for both the property owner and the applicant as to what the rules might be. IAR suggests that this should be spelled out more clearly, so the rules are not inconsistently applied.

  1. How far back can a property owner look when establishing an applicant’s criminal history?

Opponents of the new rules feel property owners should to be able to make determinations about violent past offenses and use a more reasonable “look-back” period when reviewing applicants than just three years.


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