PROVO — A proposed city ordinance that would have mandated all landlords to conduct background checks on future tenants — except certain college students — has undergone massive retooling.

Now the proposed measure would establish a voluntary program rewarding landlords with lower fees per rental unit if they conduct background checks, said Neil Lindberg, legal attorney for Provo City Council. Local university students would also have to submit to background checks, instead of merely verifying they attend "an institution of higher education which maintains a code of conduct," as was stated in the ordinance's rough draft.

"That won't be (in the ordinance) anymore," Lindberg said.

Aimed at reducing crime in neighborhoods with a high number of rental units, the Provo City Council first considered the measure in mid-June. The rough draft of the ordinance drew criticism from property managers concerned about being compelled to complete tenant background checks. The measure also drew heat for excluding students at universities with a code of conduct.

Last week Paul Smith, Utah Apartment Association executive director, encouraged the City Council to adopt a voluntary "good landlord plan" — similar to established programs in West Valley City, Ogden and South Salt Lake — that offers incentives to participants.

He also discouraged the council from making exceptions for students at universities with a code of conduct, citing Brigham Young University, which requires students to sign and adhere to an honor code, as an example.

"Getting an ecclesiastical endorsement doesn't mean I don't have a criminal history," he said.

On average, Smith said, police and fire departments receive 40 percent more calls for assistance from rental areas than owner-occupied neighborhoods. This translates into higher costs that cities offset through additional fees on rental units.

Ogden used to charge a $156 rental fee per unit, Smith said. Then, the city lowered the fee to $13 for landlords who conduct background checks.

Since Smith's presentation, the council will likely consider a voluntary program, City Councilman George Stewart said. He said the public's response to the initial ordinance surprised him.

"People were acting like it was the final draft," Stewart said. "And it was never meant to be."

The ordinance has shifted from mandatory to voluntary basis, but some are still apprehensive about its latent effects. Richard Nance, director of the Utah County Division of Substance Abuse, said many recovering substance abusers will be homeless as a result of the measure.

"If they aren't able to get stable housing, that's gonna keep them in their cycle of self-destructive behavior," he said.

Lindberg said the ordinance doesn't forbid landlords from renting to people with a criminal history.

"It's simply saying we're encouraging you to get information about who you're renting to," he said.

Though the ordinance has been overhauled, the City Council can't approve it until the Legislature changes some state code, Lindberg said. Utah Code states a city that has never implemented a disproportionate fee must conduct a municipal service study before Jan. 1, 2007.

Smith, whose organization helped draft that code, said the current wording is a mistake, and they are working with state legislators to get it fixed so Provo can implement the program.

"It's an easy fix," he said.

Ogden and West Valley City have seen a 12 percent and 30 percent reduction in calls for police and fire service in high-rental neighborhoods since they implemented their programs, Smith said.

Stewart said he thinks the program will benefit Provo landlords and renters alike.

"I think people would rather live in a place where those checks have been done," he said. "It gives each of the tenants a little surety."

E-mail: [email protected]