A crackdown may be coming against landlords who allow too many tenants to live in single-family houses across Lawrence.
City commissioners at their meeting Tuesday will review a proposal that would give city staff members much broader authority to revoke the licenses of landlords who allow more than three unrelated tenants to live in single-family homes.
“These are big changes from how we’re doing this right now,” said Brian Jimenez, code enforcement manager for the city.
Under the proposal, the city would start using the city rental licensing program as leverage to get problem landlords to comply with a city code that says no more than three unrelated people can live in a single-family home. The proposal has several provisions. They include:
• First time violators of the occupancy provision would be put on probation, which would consist of being told that they have 30 days to either evict a tenant or take other means to bring the property into compliance with the occupancy code. If they fail to comply, the property would lose its rental license and could not be occupied.
• Landlords who violate the ordinance two times in a 24-month period would automatically lose their license. Those landlords could appeal the revocation to the City Commission for a hearing.
• Monetary fines under the rental licensing ordinance can be from $250 to $1,000, and would be at the discretion of the City Commission. The fines currently attached to the occupancy code range from $10 to $500, and are at the discretion of the city’s Municipal Court judge.
• The proposal also would change the definition of a resident to make it clear that any person who stays at the house for 14 or more days during a 30-day period is counted as a resident under the city’s code.
The proposed process is expected to speed up the time it takes to resolve an over-occupancy case. Currently, city inspectors must build a case that is taken to Lawrence Municipal Court, unless the landlord voluntarily agrees to comply. That can take several months, Jimenez said. Under the proposal, city inspectors would be allowed to make an administrative finding that the property is violating occupancy standards. If property owners disagree, the appeal process would go to the City Commission — although a landlord always has the ability to sue the city in a court of law.
“We’re not going to be too quick to pull the trigger on any case,” said Jimenez. “We’re going to make sure that there is a violation. But we think this process could take a few weeks instead of three or four months.”
City commissioners asked staff members in June to come up with ideas for strengthening enforcement of the occupancy code, which has been a major concern of several residents who believe their neighborhoods are becoming dominated by illegal student housing.
City Commissioner Bob Schumm said he wants to review the proposal in more detail but likes some of what he’s seen so far.
“I’m interested in a stiff fine, I’m interested in clearing up the definition of what constitutes a resident, and I think the revocation of a license certainly would be meaningful and appropriate,” Schumm said.
One key question city commissioners will have to decide, if they move forward, is how long any revocation ought to last.
Schumm said he wants to have a policy that is strong enough to get the attention of the minority of landlords who are violating the law.
“What is going in a lot of neighborhoods right now is reason for worry,” Schumm said. “Sometimes people’s entire net worth is in their homes, and they don’t want to see that vaporized because their neighborhood has turned into something completely different than what it used to be.”
City commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.