Lawrence's mayor thinks the city should assess its oversight of rental property.
The slow demise of a house at 222 N. Eighth illustrates potential perils of being a renter in Lawrence and difficulties city officials have convincing some landlords to maintain quality rental property.
Tenants and neighbors battled 15 years against the dilapidated house's owners, who had little resolve to keep the residence in compliance with city code.
City inspectors ordered the two-story residence vacated in 1978, 1985 and 1987 in response to unsafe living conditions.
"Each time, they would make it barely habitable. Then it would fall apart again," said Gene Shaughnessy, chief building inspector.
In March, the city commission had a demolition crew sweep the blight from the map.
Mayor Jo Andersen said the history of 222 N. Eighth suggests city hall should review the method used to deal with housing code violations in the city's 13,200 rental units, which account for more than half the occupied housing units in Lawrence.
"We're all interested in safety," she said. "That should be our No. 1 concern. I'm willing to look more deeply into this issue."
While some cities have mandatory inspections of all rental property, Lawrence does not. While some cities generate annual lists of landlords who violate city housing codes, Lawrence does not.
"If we can't get a list of habitual offenders, we need a new policy," Andersen said.
She said many renters in Lawrence -- a large portion are Kansas University students -- don't realize they can report rental problems to the city's minimum housing inspector. Only about 50 housing code complaints are filed each year.
"The way it is now, most people don't know where to turn," said renter Cynthia Weeks of Lawrence. "It's too easy to be taken advantage of by some landlords."
Complaints made by tenants against Lawrence landlords regarding the condition of rental property are public documents. Management of those documents by the city appears less than adequate.
After city officials assured the Journal-World that reporters had been given access to all minimum housing standard complaints, about 200 more were discovered in a file cabinet several days later.
A review of the files indicated there was no follow-up on some complaints, and more than one file existed for a single house. Although city officials said the filing system was recently improved, at least one file -- the one labeled 222 N. Eighth -- couldn't be located.
Earlier this year, City Manager Mike Wildgen said the condition of the files meant that compiling a list of minimum housing complaints by address could cost the J-W about $300.
"There is no statute that says every possible document has to be ... simple for you to get," Wildgen said.
Andersen said all city records need to be computerized to improve access. City hall must be a better steward of public documents, she said.
"Sometimes to get information we dig in archives for hours," Andersen said. "The biggest problem is citizens get the perception that city hall is stonewalling when information is not readily available. The truth is we don't have a computerized system like most businesses have."
On Tuesday, city commissioners plan to consider a $1 million proposal to improve the city's computer capabilities.
Starting from scratch
The way Lawrence officials enforce housing codes provides landlords a clean slate each time a tenant files a complaint. There's no compounding of punishment against landlords who are repeat code violators.
"If he pays his debt to society and corrects the problem, the next one is a fresh issue," Wildgen said.
Shaughnessy said 222 N. Second indicated the city should consider ways of compelling chronic code violators to deal with problems quickly.
It's not fair for a landlord's negligence to erode the value of neighboring property, he said.
Commissioner Doug Compton, who owns 150 rental units in Lawrence, endorsed creation of a "three strikes and you're out" ordinance to add weight to the code enforcement process.
He said the ordinance would require a municipal court summons be issued to a landlord who failed to adequately respond to justified tenant complaints.