Enforcement challenge

The city has new tools to enforce occupancy limits on rental housing, but enforcement still will be a challenge.

January 16, 2012


Lawrence city commissioners certainly are talking tougher when it comes to cracking down on problem landlords in the city.

Of course, the talking is the easy part.

City commissioners recently approved a new ordinance that gives the city far greater authority to deny applications for rental licenses, if the city has evidence the applicant has been a problem landlord in the past. The new ordinance even allows the city to declare problem properties ineligible for use as a rental unit for up to two years. Landlords who live 40 miles or more outside the city limits will be required to hire a local resident agent who can serve as a point of contact when problems arise at their properties. A $500 fine also has been added to the mix of possible penalties.

Those changes have pleased many neighborhood residents who put up with houses that are overcrowded and produce excessive noise, litter and parking problems.

But it is worth remembering that when it comes to rentals, City Hall’s problem never has been an inability to write new regulations.

More than a decade ago, the city took the bold step of making it illegal for more than three unrelated adults to live in a single-family rental home. The ordinance was greeted with enthusiasm by the same neighbors who are enthusiastic now. But the city quickly found the ordinance was difficult to enforce.

Perhaps there are reasons to be more optimistic about the most recent regulation changes. The city has created a strategy that relies more heavily on the ability of city staff members and the City Commission to hand out penalties to problem landlords, rather than relying on the city’s Municipal Court system to do that. Such a system has the potential for abuse and inconsistencies, but it is worth trying and monitoring closely. There are many single-family neighborhoods in the city that are in real need of stability.

But one thing is certain: This new ordinance won’t enforce itself. City staff members are dedicated individuals who will work to enforce the new regulations. But their efforts must be matched by the political will — and resources — of the City Commission, and a dedication to fairly administer these new penalties.

Anything less will be a City Hall failure that will be felt in neighborhoods across the city.


budman 6 years, 4 months ago

Has the city gone absolutely mad. What business is it of theirs. And what should we do with all the old houses near the univerisity. Should we tear them down and contruct apartment complexes with a maximum of three bedrooms.

If you live next to roudy neighbors, tell them to keep it down or file a noise complaint. Its not like the cops here are afraid to enforce that.

nativeson 6 years, 4 months ago

The challenge for the City Commission is to balance effective ordinances with appropriate resources. A comprehensive review of what is currently on the books should have been reviewed before anything new is passed.

As the next budget cycle rolls around, several questions be asked. Is the money available to enforce these ordinances? If not, where will it come from? What will not get funded? These are the resource allocation questions that we should expect our elected officials to consider.

beaujackson 6 years, 4 months ago

Budman - Neighborhoods adjacent KU ( i.e., Oread) are zoned MF (multi-family) and are not included in this ordinance. Houses in MF zoning can "cram" in as many students as they want.

ONLY SF (single family) zoned neighborhoods are affected by this long-overdue ordinance.

Orwell 6 years, 4 months ago

Never bother ideologues with facts. It's a waste of time, and it only makes them grouchy.

George Lippencott 6 years, 4 months ago

Well IMHO Lawrence has a strong tendency to pass ordinances to placate different interest groups. In doing so they provide little or no resources for enforcement leaving that to whatever disgruntled group demanded redress to begin with. Think snow, recycle, renters, economic development and so on.

Makes us sound so progressive while undermining respect for real civic responsibilities. Saying no to anybody hereabouts is a suicide pact. Saying yes gets you reelected reflecting the lack of actual intellectual content in many of the demands so cherished by our ever activist players. Placebos are basically useless!

beaujackson 6 years, 4 months ago

This ordinance, like speeding & running red lights, will enforce itself.

Landlords will self-enforce after Journal World "headlines" one that is caught, fined $500.00 and looses the property for rental.

Most laws are obeyed because ignoring them have undesirable consequences.

George Lippencott 6 years, 4 months ago

Well, speeding is an issue that makes my point. If the results were as undesirable as suggested we would have a lot less of it.

Who would enforce the new ordinance? The students benefiting from lower rent because of their number? The landlord who lives in San Francisco who has nary a clue? The neighbor who has to live with the students and is not specifically interested in provoking them? The non-existent “block warden”? The neighborhood association (where there is one)?

Bob Forer 6 years, 4 months ago

The law probably is too vague to pass constitutional muster. No one will ever be charged under it, and if they are, the proceedings will be tied up in appellate courts for years.

George Lippencott 6 years, 4 months ago

Hey, Neat idea. Let us charge a fee to the rental property owners to manage the system, We probably should expand it to all rental property. Right!!!???

imastinker 6 years, 4 months ago

Students need housing, and all this completely ignores the fact that there isn't enough decent housing for students. The reason that students break the rules is to save money and to live close to campus for an easy commute, so rather than allow more dense housing around the university pass laws to try to correct the symptom rather than the problem. Nearly the whole town is zoned single family.

deec 6 years, 4 months ago

Rents are also very high, so students quadruple+ up to make housing affordable.

George Lippencott 6 years, 4 months ago

Oh, those poor students. Because somebody feels rent is high (try San Diego) we should allow any number of renters in single family zoned areas. There are many apartments in town to support students. The conversion of single family homes should be restricted in geography and numbers. Allowing significant numbers of absent landlords with little or no management of the property should be severely limited.

Frankly, I don't think the issue is really the number of bodies but the propensity for larger gatherings to develop that cause inconvenience to those who actually pay taxes on their property right next-door with expectation of mature neighbors. A proper noise and nuisance ordinance (enforced by complaint) could solve that problem.

imastinker 6 years, 4 months ago

Who would want to live out on the outskirts of town? The vibrant part of town is downtown, and the university has little parking. Even if you do park you still have to walk a ways. The bus is a good option but can take a lot of time and make it hard to get home for lunch between classes or in shorter breaks. All things equal, I think nearly everybody would rather live near the university.

Rents are not high here. They are actually quite low. This is part of the problem. It's hard to make money renting houses in Lawrence. This rule makes it even harder, and will only make the problem worse. It does nothing to change the demand of renters to be near campus and makes it less profitable to be a landlord, forcing some into illegal or unethical business practices.

jafs 6 years, 4 months ago

Rents are certainly high in Lawrence, for anybody that wants to live in a decent place.

You can always find higher costs, if you compare us to cities like NY, SF, etc. but that's not a fair comparison.

And, really? You're going to claim that landlords are "forced" into illegal behavior?

imastinker 6 years, 4 months ago

No, that's not what I am saying. The ratio of rent to home value is very low. It's almost impossible to buy a house in Lawrence and have the rent cover the expenses. I'm not saying it's a bad investment, but the cash flow is poor. Rents here are less than 1% of the purchase price. Taxes are high here, and there are a lot of regulations and a difficult zoning dept. Neighboring towns are much lower to purchase homes but rents are nearly identical. You can complain about rent all you want, but nobody is getting rich with rentals in lawrence.

Illegal acts on the part of the landlord are never OK, but there are folks that might be inclined to do that and cash flow problems are a reason they might be more inclined to do it than normal.

Part of the reason rents are low is all the new apartment buildings that pull housing demand off the area around campus. This negatively affects all the landlords downtown and helps the big apartment complexes and their owners.

This is why you have the problem.

jafs 6 years, 4 months ago

If what you say is true, then Lawrence is not an attractive place to be a landlord.

It's also, however, not that attractive a place to be a tenant.

A tenant's concern is not how much profit the landlord is or isn't making, it's whether or not the quality of the housing is commensurate with the cost to them. In my experiences as a tenant, it often is not.

The basic problem is that real estate is inflated in Lawrence, and has been for a while now.

The only solution to that problem is for enough people to stop being willing to pay higher costs for houses in Lawrence - you, for example, could just as easily buy a rental house in a surrounding community instead of one in Lawrence.

imastinker 6 years, 4 months ago

I agree. I cannot figure out why people do buy houses here. I own rental property myself but not here. In the long run I think you're right. Home prices have to come down, and Lawrence hasn't really seen that much of a drop yet. Rents can't go up with all the new housing inventory on the market here.

I do think that a lot of your experiences as a tenant are colored by this. Landlords with problem houses often defer maintenance to save money. My houses that I rent are profitable and in good neighborhoods. They are nice houses that are desirable. They rent at or higher than market rent. I am very happy to have the tenants there, and I want to keep them. I don't mind doing maintenance, even cosmetic stuff because it keeps them happy. Them staying happy makes me more money. See where I'm going with this?

That process doesn't happen in lawrence because rentals are less profitable and tenants are easy to find and prone to trashing the place.

jafs 6 years, 4 months ago

Well, to be fair, this seems to be a problem in college towns, generally.

What you describe is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy - if you don't take care of your rentals, then you get tenants who don't care about them,..and down it goes.

Also, I remember looking at surrounding communities a while back when renting, and my recollection is that you can get more house for your rental dollars there as well. The problem is that there weren't any that we really wanted to live in.

Anybody who goes into business as a landlord should be aware of, and follow the legal obligations that go with that business - if they find that they can't do that, and still make money, then they should get out of the business. In my experience, many landlords in Lawrence are either unaware of those, or don't care about them, probably because of many student renters who are similarly inclined.

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