By Rick Smith
Landlords here are getting closer to being required to conduct mandatory criminal background checks of their prospective tenants.
A special City Council committee on Tuesday said they supported an amendment to the city’s rental housing ordinance that would make the background checks mandatory and would position the Police Department to provide landlords with a comprehensive tenant criminal-background check for an estimated fee of $6 for each check.
The full City Council is slated to take up the matter in February, said the committee members — Monica Vernon, Pat Shey and Justin Shields.
Many landlords now check a potential tenant’s criminal background in Iowa for free via the Iowa Courts Online service. Civil cases in Iowa in which a person has been involved also appear using Iowa Courts Online.
However, Vernon said that the new city requirement for a criminal-background check of tenants is likely to require a landlord to do more than a check of Iowa Courts Online.
“I think the bar will be higher than that,” Vernon said after Tuesday’s meeting.
Some landlords, she added, already use a background-checking service for a cost that provides criminal data from more than 30 states.
Police Capt. Steve O’Konek said the Cedar Rapids Police Department’s criminal checks would consist of a check of data from all 50 states, as well information on outstanding arrest warrants and from sex-offender and terrorist watch lists. Each check would be completed within 24 to 48 hours of the request, O’Konek added.
Such checks can only be so comprehensive because O’Konek said that some jurisdictions across the country do not make their criminal data available for checking, one of which is Chicago and Cook County, Ill., where Chicago is located.
A lack of information easily available from Chicago is of note because Cedar Rapids has become an attractive spot in recent years for new residents and visitors from the Chicago area.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Shey and Vernon both suggested that a landlord would be able to require that a prospective tenant obtain his or her own criminal background check from Chicago authorities before a Cedar Rapids landlord had to rent to them because of the lack of availability of such information through the Cedar Rapids Police Department.
The City Hall attempt to toughen the city’s rental housing code is designed to improve housing and neighborhoods and make the city less friendly to criminals, city officials have said.
An earlier city attempt failed when landlords objected to certain provisions and succeeded in court in 2011 in getting them set aside.
City officials on Tuesday made it clear that requiring background checks does not mean that a landlord can’t rent to a tenant who has had prior criminal problems. Landlords should be allowed to give tenants second chances, Vernon said.
However, landlords who don’t conduct background checks or who rent to criminals and then are found to have nuisance properties might have their ability to rent properties in Cedar Rapids taken away, the committee members said.