Landlords who create problems for Lawrence neighborhoods may soon have their own problems to deal with, courtesy of Lawrence City Hall.
City commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting unanimously agreed to a new enforcement system that could lead to some Lawrence homes being declared ineligible for use as rental units for up to a two-year period.
“We have to take steps to maintain our city,” Mayor Aron Cromwell said.
Commissioners at their weekly meeting approved new language that specifically targets single-family homes that are used as rental units. For more than a decade, the city has had an ordinance that prohibits more than three unrelated people from living in a single-family home. Neighbors have expressed concern that enforcement of the ordinance has been lax, and overcrowding has created problems with noise, parking, litter and other issues.
The new language approved Tuesday, among other things, gives more teeth to the city’s rental licensing program. Specifically it directs the city’s enforcement staff to automatically deny applications for new rental licenses if the applicant has had a rental license revoked by the city during the last two years or if the property being applied for has been the subject of a revoked rental license within the last two years. Applicants could appeal their denials to the City Commission, which would be allowed to use its best judgment in determining whether a license should be issued.
The new ordinance also gives the city’s enforcement staff the ability to revoke an existing license once a property has been found in violation of the any one of the following city codes: the noise ordinance; the anti-litter ordinance; the disorderly house nuisance ordinance; the property maintenance code; the environmental code; or the land development code.
If the city revokes the rental license for the property then it would make that property owner ineligible to apply for other rental licenses in the city for a period of two years. It also would prohibit the property in violation from being used as a rental property for the next two years. Commissioners were told that such a property would either have to be lived in by the owner or remain vacant. Even if the property is sold to another person, the property would be ineligible to receive a rental license for the next two years, unless the City Commission takes a vote to reinstate eligibility for the property.
City staff members said they thought such strict language was needed to prevent problem landlords from simply shifting ownership of the property to a different company that they still control.
Commissioners did express concern about possible unintended consequences from the new ordinance but ultimately said they were fine with the provisions because the City Commission would have the ability to take a vote to make exceptions to the two-year ban.
“I’m not willing to make this too easy on people who are violators,” City Commissioner Bob Schumm said.
The new ordinances also make several other changes, including:
• Out-of-town landlords, defined as anyone who lives more than 40 miles outside the city, must hire a “resident agent” who can serve as a point of contact for the city in enforcement matters.
• The minimum fine for violating the city’s rental licensing program will increase from $250 to $500.
• Tenants of properties now will be subject to fines associated with having too many unrelated people living in a single-family home. Previously, only landlords were subject to the fine.
Representatives from multiple neighborhood associations across the city urged commissioners Tuesday to pass the new regulations. Many urged the city to ultimately take them a step further. The city’s rental licensing program only applies to rental units that are in a single-family neighborhood. Several neighborhood leaders said the program should be expanded to apartment complexes and units that exist in neighborhoods that have multifamily zoning, like the Oread neighborhood.
“I was appalled at the conditions I saw recently in the Oread neighborhood,” said Dan Dannenberg, who said there was a “flop house” clearly being allowed to exist in the neighborhood. “We’re supposed to be a progressive city, and we allow this to exist.”
Commissioners did hear from one landlord who predicted the new regulations won’t produce the type of change neighbors are expecting.
“The problem is we do not follow up on complaints,” Joe Patterson said. “We have been too lax in taking care of complaints when they are filed, and then we get in a situation where it becomes almost a panic. We need to stop and look at the past before we create something new.”
Also Tuesday, commissioners unanimously approved a pair of agreements with Lawrence-based Community Wireless Corporation.
The agreement gives the company — which is the for-profit operator of the Lawrence Freenet Internet service — more access to city rights-of-way and to use city-owned fiber optic cable to provide high-speed Internet service.
Community Wireless will make a one-time payment of $30,000 to lease a portion of the city’s fiber optic cable for the next 25 years, and will pay the city 5 percent of its gross revenues each year to use the city’s rights-of-way.