Archive for Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Tenant advocate seeks law changes

Solving substandard housing not easy, officials say

May 14, 2003


Danette Seymour knows what it's like to be intimidated by a landlord.

Four years ago, when a neighbor complained about her 7-year-old son swearing outside, Seymour's landlord gave her 14 days to correct the problem -- or 30 days to move.

Seymour explained that her son was autistic, and she was permitted to stay. But the rules seemed to change.

"The whole entire time after that, it was just horrible," she said.

Her landlord threatened legal action when Seymour formed a coalition with a few other tenants. And when Seymour's lease ended, it wasn't renewed.

In 2000, Seymour founded the Kansas Tenants Union. Today she helps others negotiate problems with their landlords.

Much of what she deals with are end-of-lease issues: security-deposit violations and the like.

But she also hears from those living in substandard conditions, and she's one of several tenant advocates who says something needs to change. Meanwhile, landlords and city officials -- those faced with enacting and enforcing housing policies -- said the real quandary was figuring out a workable solution to the problem of substandard housing.

Except in areas zoned for single families, Lawrence tenants must complain to have their homes inspected by the city.

But "a lot of tenants are afraid to complain for fear of retaliatory eviction," Seymour said.

Seymour said she believed inspectors sometimes overlooked code violations because they know tenants would have no other place to go if the property were condemned.

When Danette Seymour felt burned by her landlord, she organized the
Kansas Tenants Union. Today, she helps renters when they have
disputes with their landlords. Last week, she played with her sons,
Jordan, left, and Caleb, in tree, in front of their west Lawrence

When Danette Seymour felt burned by her landlord, she organized the Kansas Tenants Union. Today, she helps renters when they have disputes with their landlords. Last week, she played with her sons, Jordan, left, and Caleb, in tree, in front of their west Lawrence duplex.

Barry Walthall, the city's code enforcement manager, said that didn't happen.

"Our success rate is good at getting repairs done," he said. "It's either 100 percent, or we vacate or prosecute."

Mandatory inspections

Some nearby Kansas cities have mandatory inspections of rental properties. Housing officials there and housing advocates here say those systems work well and should be considered for Lawrence.

In Kansas City, Kan., properties must be licensed each year before they are rented.

The program, which pays for itself, works on a $400,000 annual budget, said Deborah Graber, program coordinator of rental inspection for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan.

The money comes from licensing fees -- $31.50 for a single-family house -- and it supports a staff of nine. The city has about 19,000 rental units, 9,000 of which were inspected last year. Lawrence has about 18,000 rental units.

Under the system, a percentage of units in apartment buildings are inspected every two years, while single-family rental homes are examined on a four-year rotation.

The program was adopted in 1996 when the city found itself with too many blighted properties, Graber said.

A committee went to Minneapolis, Minn., to study that city's program and came back with a licensing plan for Kansas City.

¢ Monday: Living in squalor and keeping quietA look at substandard living conditions in Lawrence and what landlords and tenants have to say.¢ Tuesday: The rootsof the problemTenants don't know their rights, and some landlords take advantage. An unlevel playing field complicates the problem.¢ Today: What to doTenant advocates pose some solutions to the problem of substandard housing, and others weigh in on chances of success.

"We've gotten a lot of positive feedback," Graber said, noting that the program has increased property values. "A lot of the landlords who originally weren't real happy with the program have changed their minds."

Meanwhile, Manhattan has a housing policy that gives renters a little leverage.

Tenants who notify the landlord of problems, request an inspection but still get no results can withhold their rent by putting it in a city escrow fund.

"It has actually proven pretty effective because the minute that landlord quits getting rent, they become pretty intent on fixing the problem," said Brad Claussen, Manhattan's building official.

Claussen could only recall a couple of times in 15 years when the escrow system was used.

"Sometimes just the threat of that is enough," he said. "I think sometimes just by having it here is an incentive."

Tenant advocates said either or both systems could be used to improve Lawrence housing.

Cities need to start viewing landlords differently, Seymour said. Renting property is a business and should be treated like one. All properties, she said, should be registered and inspected at least every two years.

"If I were to open up a Taco Bell, first I would have to go get a license, then I would have to meet KDHE code," Seymour said, and opening a house to renters should be no different. "If you're going to be a landlord, and you rent it out for money, that's a business."

A city escrow fund to help people in bad situations also would be helpful, said Bruce Plenk, a Lawrence attorney who represents tenants in disputes with landlords.

That way, inspectors wouldn't hesitate to shut down properties for fear of rendering tenants homeless, Plenk said, and renters wouldn't be afraid to complain.

"Half the time you can't find a landlord or you can't find a way to get money out of them" and an escrow fund would allow tenants to get by until landlords could be tracked down or sued, Plenk said.


Mandatory, citywide inspections would be a major undertaking -- and not really a practical one, said James Dunn, president of Landlords of Lawrence Inc.

The city's current complaint-based system works well, he said, and it saves a lot of money.

"As a taxpayer, I'm comfortable with the current system," he said.

But look no further than the landlord group's vice president, Bob Ebey, for a different perspective.

Ebey said he didn't like the current system in which mandatory inspections take place every three years only in areas zoned for single families.

It's not that he's against inspections, he said. But he considers the current policy discriminatory. He said he was preparing to sue the city because of that.

"The city had the right idea in the inspections. They're just doing it wrong," said Ebey, who is also the legislative liaison for The Associated Landlords of Kansas. "We feel if it was a citywide thing, it would be very good.

"If all these rentals were inspected, it would catch all these slumlords around town. And I'm the first one to say we've got some."

Ebey conceded that regular, citywide inspections would be expensive.

The code enforcement office probably would have to quadruple its staff, he said, but for a few extra dollars a month, tenants would be assured a safe place to live. And regular inspections would keep properties from ever reaching such sub-par conditions, making an emergency fund irrelevant.

One of the major obstacles to any change in policy is resources, said Lawrence City Commissioner Mike Rundle, adding that as Lawrence boomed, the number of building inspectors did not.

"I'm just absolutely convinced that the staffing level for that department has been kept artificially low for years," he said.

Rundle said he eventually would like to see citywide inspections, and he said the mandatory inspections in single-family areas were meant to be a step in that direction.

But first the department needs to be assessed and funds made available, he said.

Within the next few weeks, Rundle said he planned to propose an audit of several city departments to his fellow commissioners.

"Because of all of the problems that have been identified and those that have been alleged with building inspections, I think that's probably the first department I would ask that we have an audit for," he said.

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