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You Can't Live Here

As a patrol officer working the area south of Colfax Avenue and east of York Street, Larry Carr became frustrated by the number of repeat visits he made to the same crime-filled apartment buildings. Every night, it seemed, the same jerks were causing the same problems over and over, from playing their music too loud to selling smack or hitting their girlfriends. What's more, Carr realized, the building's managers didn't even know he'd been called, since more often than not, he arrived late at night while they were asleep.

The cycle seemed endless.

So in 1997, along with Denver Police Department consultant Phillip B. Wayne, Officer Carr helped launch a plan to limit people with criminal histories from finding a roof on his beat. The result was the Drug/Crime-Free Housing lease agreement, which asks potential renters to agree to criminal background checks, to sign contracts promising not to do anything illegal in their apartments and to take responsibility for their family, friends and visitors.

Carr also began slipping Apartment Incident Cards beneath the managers' doors each time he was called to a building; under the lease agreement, tenants agreed to a three-cards-and-you're-out rule. "The more people living there that are law-abiding people," Carr reasons, "the more safe it will be."

Apparently he's right.

In 1997, according to police records, there were 5,300 calls for assistance to apartment buildings in Carr's District 3, about fourteen calls per day. By the end of 1998, fifty of these buildings had joined Carr's program, and their calls for assistance dropped by 37 percent, he says.

Criminals were no longer causing problems, because in large part, criminals weren't allowed to move in. The program was proving so effective that in one case, Carr says, an applicant with a shady past looked at the terms of the contract, walked out of the apartment building and moved into a contract-free building across the street.

Now Carr is working to take the program city-wide, "until ultimately," he says, "people who engage in criminal activity move out of the city and to a place where they don't have the program."

At a neighborhood meeting on October 13, he presented the plan to property owners and fellow cops in Capitol Hill. District 6 officers promised eager building owners that they would start carrying Apartment Incident Cards. "If you could imagine what it's going to be like in a couple of years," Carr muses. "It's going to up the quality of life in the entire corridor."

But a spotless history is a difficult prerequisite for many people who want to rent an apartment. It's also, quite possibly, an unintentional form of discrimination against minorities and those with only minor convictions, says Clyda Stafford, program director of Housing for All, a HUD-funded program that hears out renters' complaints and investigates accusations of discrimination. An estimated 28 percent of black males will enter state or federal prisons during their lifetime, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, compared to 16 percent of Hispanic males and 4.4 percent of white males.

Based on this discrepancy, Stafford fears, "there may be a disparate impact on minority groups, particularly with criminal background checks. Because in Denver, having a felony, it is becoming a difficult place to live."

Wayne, the crime consultant who helped draft the program, says landlords have the right to reject applicants for any conviction. "The law is very simple," he says. "If you've ever been convicted of anything, I don't have to take you. If I stole a pickle at a grocery store seven years ago and was convicted, they don't have to take me."

The idea that the program could discriminate against some people doesn't faze officer Carr, either. "A criminal is a criminal," he says. "The idea is to create a positive environment where you live. You cannot subject your residents to live next door to rapists or child molesters."

Though Wayne and Carr strongly recommend that landlords use some sense when denying applicants, it's still the landlord's prerogative to judge which convictions are noteworthy and which are not. Even before the program began, landlords had been checking backgrounds to keep out known sexual offenders, because for the past decade, landlords and building owners have increasingly been sued for liability: They should have known, the argument goes.

In Colorado, criminal history checks are fast becoming the industry standard as Denver's rental market has squeezed to a barely visible vacancy rate of 3.7 percent, Stafford says. "If one owner says, 'We are going to check back five years on felonies,' that's a business decision, and that's certainly well within their rights -- as long as they apply it to everybody. The question really is, are they really applying that criteria to everyone who applies?"

Stafford hasn't heard a single complaint about someone suffering discrimination on the basis of their past, but, she notes, that's not to say it isn't happening. "Anytime you get an extremely tight market, it's easier for landlords to discriminate, because they know they are not losing a renter. In other words, their place will be filled up right away. In a bad market, perhaps they would be able to swallow their prejudices a little easier."

In addition, she says, a criminal past is not an identifiable basis for rental discrimination as are race, creed, sex or religion.

Yet Susan Bustin, manager of criminal background checks at Rental Services, Colorado's largest screening agency, says she's threatened with legal action all the time. "We hear 'I'm going to sue you!' all day long because they get denied all day long," she says. On a normal day, Bustin peers into the past of about 470 hopeful applicants. "It just kills your fingers some days, typing in all those names."

It costs a landlord $12 to check a renter's criminal background at Rental Services, a cost that is passed on to the applicant. Each of the approximately 3,500 landlords who use Rental Services has an individual agreement with the company; they can create their own criteria for pass or fail. If a particular landlord bans anyone with a DUI conviction in the past seven years, for example, Bustin will search for that offense and fax back an "applicant denied" form if she finds one. Other landlords simply have an applicant's entire rap sheet faxed to their offices.

The 1997 Fair Credit Reporting Act makes it clear that landlords are to base their decisions on convictions, not arrests. "Arrests," Officer Carr agrees, "are only allegations."

And according to the Fair Housing Act of 1988, landlords must subject all applicants to the same criteria: If one applicant is denied for pickle theft, then all must be denied for pickle theft. But making sure that landlords follow these rules is nearly impossible, Stafford says. "There's no such thing as 'monitoring' landlords. The only way Fair Housing works is if a person files a complaint."

Joan Copeland, manager of The Landings at Lowry, a 542-unit complex at Third Avenue and Quebec Street, in Officer Carr's district, has had such remarkable results with the Drug/Crime-Free Housing program that she won't let anyone escape signing the contract -- not even children. But when Copeland looks into the past of potential renters, she allows some wiggle room for years-old convictions. "We're not trying to punish someone for the rest of their lives," she says. "We take into consideration what they were convicted for."

Drug use and domestic-violence convictions send up red flags for Copeland, making the decision to deny a simple one. "We're not doing anything they're not aware of," she says.

"When they put their signature on that application, they know right then that we're going to take a look. They know what's in their files. We don't."

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Justin Berton

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