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Chat about rental licensing and inspections with City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer

March 6, 2014

This chat has already taken place. Read the transcript below.

City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer

Got questions about the proposed rental licensing and inspections program? Submit your questions to City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer here.

Moderator:

Welcome to our chat about the city's proposed rental licensing and inspection program. We have with us today Lawrence City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer, who has made a recent proposal for how the program should be structured. As a brief reminder, the basics of the program include a system for inspecting rental units in multifamily zoned areas of town. The city already operates an inspection program that inspects rentals in single-family zoned areas of town. We have a few questions already submitted, but please feel free to send us more. With that, I'll let Jeremy say hello, and we'll get started.

City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer:

Thanks for having me, Chad. I am appreciative of all of the efforts of our City staff members as they've worked hard and diligently to ensure that we have a great understanding of this proposal. It's been quite a long process for many people over the years, and this is a positive step in the right direction in ensuring that the most vulnerable citizens have safe and affordable housing. I'm looking forward to answering people's questions and would remind folks that they can shoot me an email at voteyourselfafarmer@gmail.com or call at 785.691.9100. I'll also be keeping my facebook page updated at www.facebook.com/voteyourselfafarmer. Let's get started!

joes_donuts:

When is government too big in your opinion? And if life safety is truly the issue, shouldn't this program be expanded to include all housing in Lawrence (including owner occupied)?

City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer:

Thanks for your question, joes_donuts. You're making me think about donuts, which isn't fair, because I'm stuck at this computer for a bit.

I think this is a fundamental political question that many people have differing opinions on. Because of the work I'm privileged to do at Just Food, we see a lot of people who are living in vulnerable situations and there is a responsibility that I believe we have to ensure that those folks are kept safe. I understand the argument of government intrusion and it being too big of a bureaucracy, but under a merely complaint based system, I'm not sure we're getting at safety for tenants who are afraid of being kicked out of their houses. Sure, they have rights under the Kansas Landlord Tenant Act, but to someone who is in poverty, there's not a lot of recourse they feel like they can take.

Expanding the program to include all housing in Lawrence is certainly one way to get at life-safety. But the thinking is that owners have the responsibility to take care of themselves...not a business responsibility to provide safe housing to a tenant that's not within their own dwelling unit.

Moderator:

A quick piece of background here before this next question. As currently proposed by Comm. Farmer, the city would operate two separate inspection programs — one for multifamily rentals and one for those in single family neighborhoods.

cforbes:

i dont understand why we need two sets of rules-one for the existing rental
registration program- which is sucessful
and one for the new program-please explain -

City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer:

cforbes:

That's a great question. The thinking on this was pretty simple: in the beginning this was being billed as an expansion of the existing single family program. However, there were many modifications that were made that this program would actually be retrofitted to include the single family units also. I'm not sure that the single family landlords really ever realized that all of these checklists, incentives, etc, would apply to their house too.

I was told that the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time and if we could get through the multi family inspections, my commitment was to get to the single family program as soon as we did that, engage the single family landlords in the conversation about how this would change their program (in my opinion, much for the better) and then pass this to include them as well.

I have heard from many single family landlords who want this program to be expanded to their properties, mainly because of the increased incentives, and over the long run, this would save them time and money. We are looking at that, and there is a potential that this will change between now and the time that we vote on it on March 25.

I think my thinking was in the right place and it was a good idea to deal with them separately, but certainly, if we are going to put single family landlords at a disadvantage, we need to look at that and figure out a way to fix it. My concern is that many single family landlords just didn't know that this would have an impact on them. Stay tuned...this is probably going to change just in the way you asked.

paulvancleave:

Hello, as a Lawrence home owner with a vested interest in one rental (in a muli-family area) , I have looked at both sides of the proposed expanded rental requirements. As a landlord, I have always tried to keep my property in good repair to maximize the return on my second largest investment. As a homeowner with one rental on my block, I can also see the need for some minimum standards for landlords.

The single family rental on my block is in dire condition, with violations that can be seen from the street. It has been turned into the city several times for some of these issues, by nearby homeowners and former tenants and myself. Some of the issues with that house have been addressed, but not all. It has been vacant and for rent for many months, attesting to its condition.

As originally proposed, I doubt that any owner occupied house or rental would meet the standards. I have toured hundreds if not thousands of homes in Lawrence, and can attest to that. Do any of us change our furnace filter enough?

If the city cannot enforce the current standard codes for single family houses, what will an expanded registration accomplish, other than more expense, headache and red tape for every person involved in renting a home in Lawrence?

Thank you
Paul Van Cleave, 315 Oklahoma, Realtor, Home Owner, Landlord.

Moderator:

Answer on the way. In the meantime, keep those questions coming.

City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer:

Paul, thanks for your question. I know most landlords in Lawrence have tried to keep their homes in fantastic condition. This ordinance really isn't getting at trying to punish good landlords for being good. It's always better to have standards and for everyone to know what those standards are...most of our code is something that many folks don't know what rules there are or what things they have to follow. We need to do a better job of educating the public about what those codes are, and this is one way to get at that.

I think many owner occupied homes and rental homes that would meet the standards. We will be walking through some homes next week and doing a case study so that we have a better idea of whether or not your assessment is correct. My inclination and especially after visiting with City staff who actually does the inspections, is that most homes would meet the requirements, but just need a few things addressed to become code compliant. In the memo that was released last week, you can see the top ten violations, and those are mostly smoke detectors, wiring and GFCI related things, which are all life safety issues and very important.

If you have concerns, please email me with the specific address and we can have City staff go out and inspect the property to ensure that it is safe.

Philawful:

I've lived in Lawrence for the past 10 years, and in that time, I've lived in some rental properties that violate many of the inspection points that have been proposed. In many cases, I've tried to get these things fixed by landlords who just don't seem willing to take care of their properties. For this type of landlord, it seems like they are willing to just rent an old house into the ground. Do you expect the new inspection process to push them to fix these homes, or to sell them to new owners who hopefully will take better care of them? Also, in the case of homes that are found to be structurally unsound (I've lived in a couple), would new owners be allowed to demolish and rebuild new homes in some of the older neighborhoods? It seems like a waste to me that there are crumbling old houses on great pieces of property. Are there any city policies in place keeping people from building new homes in older neighborhoods, or is it just a lack of investor interest in doing so?

Thanks,
Philip Davis

City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer:

Phil, thanks for your question. You're getting at exactly why we have this program. Many people live in deplorable conditions and while most of the landlords we have in this community are wonderful, the reality is that some aren't. I haven't met many of them through this process, and I wouldn't expect to, because they know this ordinance is going to make their lives especially difficult. The inspection process would push them to fix these homes, otherwise, they couldn't get a license to rent their homes. If someone rents a home without a license, knowingly, and does it to not comply with the system, we can take those people to court, and ensure compliance with their homes for the life safety issues.

Homes that are found to be structurally unsound that are within historic environs may be subject to a review process from the Historic Resources Commission, as well as the City Commission. I would say that it's quite a positive thing for a neighborhood to have homes that have been neglected to the point of being unable to be repaired, to be built anew. If you want my honest opinion, it's not our policies that are keeping people from building new homes in older neighborhoods (think Cider Building and the great things Tony Krsnich has done to rehab that area of our community), it's a lack of interest. That's my two cents.

Bottom line, we want you to be safe, and this program gets at making sure you are kept safe in every home you would rent in our community.

joeherynk:

Why isn't this proposal referred to a tax rather than a licensing program? A fee and/or license is initiated at the request of the end user (state park fee, hunting license, etc.). A tax is initiated by a governing body rather than the end user. Health and safety should be a city wide concern regardless of whether one lives in owner-occupided or non-owner-occupied residences. To do otherwise is discriminatory towards non-owner-occupied residences.

No one is debating the good intention of this proposal, but rather City Hall's solution. How many housing complains where filed last year out of 18,000 rental properties? Is it a viable solution to tax and monitor 99.5% rental properties that are in compliance in order to gain access to the .5% that are not in compliance? I think not. We can and we must do better if our city is to grow and prosper.

City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer:

Joe, thanks for your question. I wouldn't agree that this is a tax rather than a licensing program. I think we're getting at semantics at that point. I understand the frustration of people having to pay for something they don't feel like is necessary, or that they themselves aren't a contributing factor to the problem. But this is again, about life, health, safety and welfare of people in our community. When I was sworn in last April, that was in the oath. That would be my primary concern as a Commissioner for the City of Lawrence. This is an opportunity we have to protect people's life, safety, health and welfare.

I think I addressed the owner vs. non owner occupied in the above question.

I think the solution that has been proposed has been the result of many hours of meetings, phone calls, emails and sitting around a table for many years trying to come up with a viable solution that works for our community. We have looked at what other communities have done, but Lawrence is unique. This proposal has been a work in progress and one with many compromises. I feel like our product is a good one right now, that many sides have made concessions and we have worked hard on this one. Compromise isn't happening in Topeka or Washington DC, but it is happening here in Lawrence and I am absolutely proud of our community for that.

There were less than 100 complaints in multi-family units. The issue though is that no one complains. I can tell you stories on dozens and dozens of occasions where clients of Just Food who are living in deplorable conditions, where they just don't complain. They don't want to be a burden, and it's a house, right, so that's better than not having one. I think we'll see lots of things that need to be addressed and dealt with...and we will be glad that this program exists. And I can tell you that the people we serve at Just Food will be glad we have this program too.

The thinking was to come up with a simple checklist with guidance that provides landlords and their staffs with exactly what needs to be fixed and the referenced code guidelines. The checklist is 27 things long. We have said if you have 5 or less, you'll qualify for the incentive program. The other violations of the code are outside of the rental inspection program and would not preclude a landlord from getting a license. I think this compromise is the best case scenario. We are getting code compliance, but not at the expense of punishing landlords for issues that aren't related to life, health, safety and welfare of their tenants.

joes_donuts:

How can the city say this program will pay for itself when we still don't know how many properties this encompasses or how many landlords there are in Lawrence? Wouldn't it make sense to start with rental registration first, then when you know the amount of rentals you have, figure out a plan for inspections?

City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer:

More donuts! Can you bring some down here? I'm definitely getting hungry now.

The memo provided by City staff last week highlights the number of rental units we think are in the City. We have provided some wiggle room in these numbers. I am absolutely confident that this program will pay for itself. But, if after the first year, we have half the number we thought register, then we have an issue with our communication and education of the program to people in the community. I don't think that's the case, but that's why we're going to be looking at this on a quarterly basis with reports from Code Enforcement Office on how we're doing. The public will be able to see those reports and they'll be on the City Commission agenda for public comment.

It would make sense to start with registrations, and that's exactly what we're doing. We're having landlords register their properties in 2014 and won't start inspections until 2015. See? Great minds think alike!

Moderator:

If you have more questions, now is the time to submit them. We'll wrap up soon unless we get more questions.

fedsmith1:

Seems this is another way to get rid of small ma and pa landlords. Small landlords cant spread the costs over multiunits like the mega apartment complexes. Seems the goverment is looking out for the big business again.

City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer:

fedsmith, thanks for your question. I don't feel like the City is looking out for the big business owners. I don't feel like this punishes the small ma and pa landlords. My grandparents have properties in single family neighborhoods in East Lawrence, and they'll have to pay the $17 registration fee, and the $50 inspection fee for their properties. Then, if they pass (and they will) they won't have to pay for an inspection for the next 6 years. I have kept them in mind as I've went through this process, because they are the small ma and pa landlords like you're talking about. I can assure you, I care far more about my grandparents, who I am absolutely close to, than anyone else in my life, and would not do anything that would cause them harm.

Moderator:

I'll ask one question about a subject that has been of some concern in the past — privacy rights of tenants. There have been some concern about city inspectors going into people's private residences, and what may be found. How can you ensure that the privacy of tenants will be respected in this program?

City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer:

Privacy has been a big issue that we wanted to get addressed. One of the reasons why this process has taken so long, is that as we've addressed these issues in the 8840 ordinance, we've also went back and looked at the single family program and how that program was run and what we could learn from it to make things easier on us as we roll this out.

One of the things I learned in the process of understanding the single family program is that we don't currently take pictures as we do those inspections. We only take pictures of tenant complaints we get, in case the landlord is non complaint and we have to go to court to get remediation.

Of course, one of the big issues that many people had was in the fact that under the former proposal, digital images could be taken. After inquiring as to how we did the single family program and understanding that we didn't currently, we took that out of there. Now, no inspectors will take pictures of a tenants dwelling unit, unless they deem the unit to be uninhabitable. If we will move to immediately condemn the property, we gave ourselves room in the administrative regulations to take pictures so that when we go to court, we would have sufficient evidence to be able to condemn the property.

If a landlord is not going to fix their violations, and they are life safety violations, our staff will make contact with the tenant, explain how we want them to life in a safe house, and that their landlord does not want to fix what needs to be fixed. The staff member will then seek the permission of the tenant to come and take a picture so that we can adequately have evidence to ensure compliance of these life and safety issues. Our Code Enforcement Manager, Brian Jiminez suggests that 99 times out of 100, we will be able to get that from the tenants, because they want their properties to be safe.

So, to recap: no digital images, video, or anything will be taken of any properties in the multi family program, or if we expand it to include the single family program at all, unless the dwelling is uninhabitable. This was a great compromise that made a lot of folks concerned about the privacy issues extremely happy with the compromise.

Bursting:

Hi Jeremy,

What happens to the tenants if an inspection deems a property un-inhabitable? Will the city be paying for a tenant's move/housing, would the landlord have to compensate tenant for costs associated with moving? It seems the program is directed towards lower priced rentals and older homes, but to be fair the city has made it a huge all inclusive program. Is it a waste of time and money to inspect newer properties that probably don't have anything wrong with them?

City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer:

If the property is deemed as uninhabitable, I don't know under the current ordinance that we will be paying for the tenants move. I think we have enough affordable housing in Lawrence, where someone would be able to find a better place to live. Most tenants know, for instance, that they're sick, but may not know it's because of mold in a place they can't see. Or, I've even heard of some instances where tenants will just not sleep in a room or have their children sleep in a room that has a lot of mold in it. They want it fixed, but don't feel like they have any recourse. I personally don't want any tenant living in a home that is condemnable.

The current ordinance says that any home that has had a major renovation in the last 6 years or been constructed in the last 6 years would be exempt from the inspection, but would still have to register...so I think we've addressed that concern adequately.

City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer:

And, thanks for your question, Bursting!

Moderator:

Thank you everyone for your questions. And thanks to Jeremy for participating in this chat. We'll be keeping an eye on this topic as it moves forward. Stay tuned on LJWorld.com or check out my Town Talk column for updates. City commissioners are scheduled to vote on the proposal at their March 25 meeting, and they also will have an informational meeting about the proposal at 6:30 p.m. on March 13 at Lawrence High. We'll end questions now, but give Jeremy a chance to offer any final thoughts.

City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer:

I appreciate the questions from concerned and interested citizens. We have been as open as possible with this process and I want to hear from people in our community about their thoughts regarding this program (as long as it's not about donuts!). Feel free to contact me and I'm looking forward to the public meeting and then the meeting on March 25.

I have often been disappointed in our federal and state legislators at their inability to get good stuff done because they don't talk to each other. One of my mentors told me one time that we don't have to see eye to eye to walk hand in hand. I wanted an opportunity to craft an ordinance, speaking to both people for and against this proposal, around the table and working through it to see if we could come up with the best possible compromise. Everyone has to give and take and be flexible, and we have done that. This isn't about winning and losing. This isn't about choosing sides. This is about protecting vulnerable citizens in our community and ensuring that what we say we will do, we will do. We have given the public an opportunity to provide feedback and because of all that feedback, we have something that I think we can be proud of.

I appreciate all of you that have written and called and expressed support for this proposal and offered feedback to help us get where we are. I'm pretty dang proud of us for working through a tough thing together and compromising. You should be pretty proud of us, too.

Thanks again for the opportunity to chat with you. And thanks to Chad and LJWorld.com for hosting this chat. I also wanted to thank Kurt Schroeder and Brian Jiminez for being here and providing backup and help as well. See you all next Thursday!

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