Somewhere in Lawrence last night, it is a good bet that a sleeping resident was awakened by his neighbor’s stereo. Tonight, as families retire for the evening, it is certain that a parade of vehicles will flow to party houses that can make neighborhood streets resemble a used car lot. Tomorrow as the sun rises, many homeowners will be greeted not by a glorious sunrise but by the litter left from tonight’s party.
For some Lawrence residents, this is the cycle of life on a weekly, if not nearly daily, basis. In Lawrence, residents really never know when their youthful partying days are over. They could return at any moment, depending on who moves into the house next door.
City commissioners are to be applauded for attempting to break this cycle. The commission recently approved a new policy that would allow the rental license of a single-family home to be revoked if it violates the city’s occupancy code twice within a 24-month period.
Neighbors applauded the new policy because violations of the occupancy code — which prohibits more than three unrelated people from living in a single-family home — often lead to many neighborhood problems.
It is an issue that deserves the commission’s continued attention. The 2010 U.S. Census found Lawrence to have grown far more slowly than city officials expected. If those numbers are correct, one cause for the slowdown may be a feeling by families that Lawrence is a less desirable place to live than other communities in the area.
One hopes that Lawrence’s new rental regulations will begin to improve the livability of many city neighborhoods. There are reasons, however, to question whether they will. Landlords still must be found guilty in court of violating the occupancy code, and proving such a violation is difficult. Technically, the city’s new policy may allow city inspectors to make an administrative finding and revoke the license before a court makes a ruling on an occupancy case, but revoking a rental license before a court has spoken on the issue would seem to open the city up to significant financial liability if a court doesn’t end up agreeing with the city’s finding. On the positive side, the new regulation provides for some serious consequences once the city proves its case.
The city should look at new ways to prove over-occupancy. Perhaps the city should work more closely with tenants — the tenants who actually are living illegally in these houses. Each May, thousands of students move out of apartments in Lawrence. Some are unhappy with their landlords for a variety of reasons. Some of those unhappy tenants likely have violated the occupancy law and probably have hard evidence of the violation. They may be willing to share that evidence with the city, if they knew the city would not seek to punish them.
It may sound distasteful, but it would get at the heart of the problem, which is a small group of landlords who flout the law. The idea is worthy of consideration. After all, what goes on in overcrowded Lawrence neighborhoods is not only distasteful, but also is dangerous to residents and the city’s future.