So, given all of the difficulties I’ve previously addressed, as well as the recent lawsuit regarding the Nova Southeastern professor whose widow is suing her association, why would any association choose to screen tenants or owners? Well, some association documents may require screening—or the demand from owners may simply be too great to ignore. Still, the issue is quite a bit more complex than most people assume, and any board considering a screening process, or looking to revise their own procedures, should consider the caveats I’ve described above. But let’s assume that, damn the torpedoes, your association is going to screen—here’s some tips on how to make sure that your procedures are as bulletproof as possible.
The worst possible situation for any board of directors (and a nightmare for any manager) is for the board to make screening decisions carte blanche, with absolutely no guidelines of any kind. Sure, that’s been done in co-ops for years, but co-ops are notorious, and somewhat reviled, for their ability to reject applicants on a whim. As a board member, you do not want the responsibility or the power to reject community residents for any or no reason at all—it’s just asking for trouble. Instead, if your community is going to implement a screening process, I strongly recommend that you consider instituting the following procedures:
a) Keep it Confidential. The vast majority of background checks are, by law, confidential, and they should be kept confidential by whoever is making the final screening decision (usually the board). Regardless of how tempted you may be, do not reveal anything you find in a background check, no matter how juicy, to your neighbors—or even your family. When your dealing with confidential information, never assume that anyone is trustworthy. The fewer people who know a secret, the less likely it is to slip. When the background check is done, and the screening process is completed, make sure that the files are permanently sealed in a way that owners or residents can’t see them. If your lawyer says you can discard them, that’s even better.
b) Keep it Consistent. The acceptance or rejection of an applicant should never be based on gut feeling or whim. Instead, the board should have specific, written guidelines that it uses for every single person, and from which it never varies. For example, a board could decide that it will reject anyone who has served more than 5 years in prison for a felony conviction. That’s an easy guideline to follow—if (a), then (b). Or, maybe a board with the power to use financial guidelines sets a minimum net income for owners (and by the way, as horrible and elitist as such a guideline sounds, it is one way to ensure that owners have the financial wherewithal to afford their maintenance payments, without which any association would be dead in the water). But it should never be “let’s look over the whole file and make a gut decision.” To avoid allegations of discrimination or bias, make sure that your standards are specific, well developed and written down. Even better, make these decisions at an open board meeting, and publish the guidelines to your members.
c) Keep it Fair. Once your board has developed appropriate guidelines for screening candidates, and has decided what to do with the information, just do it. Never, ever make exceptions for friends, family or sad cases. The second that guidelines are ignored, you are opening up the board to allegations of collusion, cronyism or nepotism. Even if your guidelines would keep out someone that the board would otherwise approve, you should still reject the candidate if they don’t meet your specific qualifications. That’s the whole point of having a system. If you don’t like the end result, you can later consider changing your qualifications as a whole, for every candidate, but don’t assume that you can let one slip under the radar without inviting the legitimate criticism of at least some members of your community.
Overall, I’m not a big fan of screening procedures—not because I think they’re unfair, but because I don’t think they accomplish their goals (greater personal and community security or stability) and are ripe for misuse and abuse. Still, I recognize how popular these programs are, so consider using the guidelines I’ve offered as a way to make your own screening process as unassailable as possible.