City commissioners on Tuesday said they want to get significantly tougher on landlords who illegally allow too many people to live in rental housing, perhaps imposing even $100 to $500 per day fines.
Commissioners unanimously directed the city’s planning and development services staff to put together a plan that would create stiffer penalties for landlords who rent to more than three unrelated people in single family homes or more than four in multifamily zoned properties.
“This is an economic situation, and you have to turn the economics inside out on the perpetrator,” City Commissioner Bob Schumm said. “These landlords aren’t doing this because they don’t know any better. You’ve got to make it so they are losing money on this.”
Thus far, landlords aren’t paying much in the way of fines in Lawrence. The city confirmed it has had only one case that has gone through the process to the point that Municipal Court levied a fine. And that fine ended up being only about $100 total, city officials said.
Scott McCullough, director of the city’s planning and development services department, said that is because the city usually does not pursue fines if a landlord agrees to comply with the regulations. But that mindset may be changing.
He said Fort Collins, Colo., has adopted a policy that requires its city officials to pursue a fine regardless of whether the landlord reduces the tenant levels and promises to comply in the future. Fort Collins has a $1,000 fine. The city’s fine provision currently is written in a way that allows for it to be as low as $10 or as much as $500.
City commissioners said Lawrence may want to consider a policy similar to Fort Collins’ because there’s evidence some landlords come into compliance and then over-rent the unit again. According to the city’s figures, 22 percent of the over-occupancy cases the city has investigated since 2005 involved eight property owners.
Commissioners heard from several members of the public who urged them to stiffen the regulations.
“We’re being infested in residential neighborhoods by unscrupulous landlords who are just packing these houses,” said George Catt, who told of a $350,000 home on the Alvamar Golf Course that now was a rental to at least seven young tenants. “It is incumbent for the commission to address this problem.”
In addition to tougher fines, the report will explore several other options. They include:
• Requiring both landlords and tenants to sign a notarized “disclosure statement” at the time of the lease or sale of the property that spells out how many unrelated people legally can live at a location.
• A provision that would allow the city to revoke the rental license of a landlord who habitually violates the occupancy provisions. Currently, landlords who rent homes in single-family neighborhoods are required to register the properties and undergo a periodic inspection.
• Adding language to the code that more clearly defines what constitutes a resident. Some commissioners suggested that resident be defined as anyone who lives at a location for 30 or more days. Adding a more specific definition could help the city prosecute cases in the future.
McCullough didn’t offer a timeline to deliver his report to the commission, but it is expected to take several weeks to complete.