The head of the city's Code Enforcement division said he's in favor of requiring periodic inspections of multi-family rental property to help crack down on slumlords in the city.
"Would an inspection of multi-family homes address that? Definitely," Code Enforcement Manager Brian Jimenez said. "It's something that the city needs to look at."
The call for the new policy comes just days after Jimenez and Zoning Enforcement Officer Tony De La Torre condemned parts of a rental property at 1008 Miss. because of conditions that could have left tenants without a way to escape if a fire started.
Those conditions included a shoddily constructed porch that served as a tenant's only entrance, basement apartment windows too small to crawl through and the absence of smoke detectors throughout the complex.
The Journal-World reported Monday the condemnation sent at least three former residents searching for a place to stay just three days after Jimenez and De La Torre visited the property.
Now, Jimenez says annual inspections could prevent the same kinds of dangers for other tenants, as well as cut down on the spate of Lawrence landlords who neglect their multi-family rental properties.
Since the beginning of 2004, the city has inspected 321 residences, the majority of which were multi-family home inspections triggered by resident complaints, city records show.
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The remainder includes single-family homes that are inspected once every three years, according to city policy.
Records show that during those inspections, the city cited 929 violations, roughly three violations for every rental property inspected. Those violations ranged from minor problems like broken windows to serious violations such as those that condemned the two apartments at 1008 Miss. last week.
Jimenez admitted the city leveled many violations against repeat offenders - problem property owners who routinely show up on Code Enforcement reports.
For example, city records show Del Hedgepath, the owner of the condemned 1008 Miss. apartments, has been cited for code violations at least 13 times since 2004, including the three recent violations at the apartment.
Hedgepath said earlier this week he wasn't aware the deck of 1008 Miss. wasn't up to code, and he would work to get the property in compliance.
But Jimenez said the problem was widespread.
"They're out there," Jimenez said. "They're everywhere."
Commissioner Sue Hack said she became aware of the situation after the Journal-World reported on the incident, and she said the time has come for the city to take some action to protect residents.
"When there's a situation where there isn't a smoke alarm anywhere in the house, that's terrifying to me," Hack said. "It's too bad it takes something like this to thump us in the head."
Hack acknowledged that conducting more inspections would mean more costs for additional city resources.
Jimenez said the resources needed would likely include at least four additional staff members to do the inspections.
Startup would incur some of the highest cost, he said, as the city would have to conduct surveys to document all the city's multiple-family homes and apartments. Then, staff salaries and other office expenses would require an increase in the department's annual budget.
"There's no way I could pull it off with the staff I have," he said. "It's impossible."
The Codes Enforcement division currently employs two zoning enforcement officers and two environmental inspectors.
To pay for the possible added resources, Hack said she hoped possible licensing fees required of multi-family property owners would help offset costs.
And Jimenez said the fees could add enough to the Neighborhood Resources budget to offset some annual salary costs for new inspectors.
"It would help considerably," he said.
James Dunn, a local landlord and president of Landlords of Lawrence, said he thought most landlords wouldn't favor inspections on multi-family homes.
"Landlords are always resistant to things like that," Dunn said.
If landlords of multi-family properties have to pay inspection fees, they'd likely pass those costs onto tenants, Dunn said. Plus, upgrading many properties can be expensive, and those costs would often show up as rent increases.
Dunn said the system in place now - where inspectors examine a property once a complaint is filed - is effective for dealing with property condition problems.
"The rules that are there now," Dunn said, "it works."