Last month, city inspectors shut down a 24-unit apartment complex in south Lawrence after finding mold growing from the carpet and a host of other health and safety violations.
Tenants had called in complaints to city officials, giving the city the necessary probable cause to order an inspection of the property. Ultimately the system ended up working as it is designed to: Units in an unfit apartment complex will not be rented again until city officials confirm the needed repairs have been made.
But some neighborhood leaders are wondering how often the system doesn’t work.
“I think we have people living in really poor conditions more often than any of us realize,” said Candice Davis, a longtime Oread neighborhood resident.
Davis and other residents of predominantly renter-occupied neighborhoods are making a push to expand the city’s limited rental registration program to require inspections of thousands of additional rental units in the city.
City commissioners have indicated they will hear the issue in the next month, and it will mark at least the third time neighbors have pushed for an expansion of the program.
“Commissioners always seem supportive of the idea, but when it gets to budget time, it doesn’t get funded,” Davis said.
A rejection based on financial concerns this time may draw a stronger reaction from neighbors, Davis said, given that the city recently has found the money to fund unbudgeted requests from groups like the Lawrence Community Theatre, the Lawrence Children’s Choir and others.
“That’s not going to sit well with us,” Davis said. “I think neighborhoods — particularly rental neighborhoods — are starting to feel a little neglected. We know this is not a glamorous issue, but it is a real life and safety issue.”
The city has a program that requires all rental units in single-family zoned neighborhoods to undergo a city inspection at least once every three years. However, rentals in single-family neighborhoods account for only about 10 percent of the city’s total rental stock.
Staff members recently have put together cost estimates for two ways to expand the program. They are:
• A program that would inspect all rental units at least 50 years old once every three years. The city estimates the program would add about 2,500 rental units initially. City staff members believe they would need to hire one new inspector and one new administrative assistant to staff the program. Total startup costs are projected to be about $86,000.
• A program that would inspect all rental units in the city once every three years. The city estimates the program would add about 18,600 units to the program and would require five new inspectors and two new administrative assistants. Total startup costs are projected to be about $370,000.
The city currently charges a $25 annual fee for rental units part of the city’s rental inspection program that covers only single-family zoned rentals.
The annual fee would need to increase to about $45 in order to cover the additional operating costs if the program is expanded to include all units at least 50 years old, a report from City Hall estimates.
But due to economies of scale, the city estimates the current $25 fee would nearly cover the additional operating costs if all units in the city were inspected.
City commissioners will have to grapple with whether they want to increase the fees and the scope of the program, but there may be another question that comes up first.
“I have always wondered whether we have done enough self-evaluation of our current program to ensure that we really are operating an efficient program,” city commissioner Mike Dever said.
Whether the city can effectively manage a much larger program likely will be an issue raised by landlords in the community.
“The city can hardly keep up with what they are doing now,” said James Dunn, an officer with Landlords of Lawrence, a business group for landlords. “To tackle something else that doesn’t seem to be a particular problem would be odd. Tenants can call the city and ask for an inspection any time they don’t think their landlord is taking care of an issue.”
But Davis said relying on tenants to complain before an inspection is triggered is a poor system, because some students are afraid of reporting a landlord and losing their security deposit, for example.
Plus, city commissioner Aaron Cromwell said, some students simply don’t recognize the dangers that substandard living conditions can cause.
“I rented homes back in college that were just horrendous,” said Cromwell, who attended the University of Kansas in the 1990s. “I have since seen homes that are still in really bad condition. It is not just the older homes, either.”
Cromwell said he is leaning toward supporting a system that would require all rental units to register and be inspected, regardless of age.
Dever, though, said he still needs more information before he’s comfortable supporting an expansion of the system. But he said now is a good time to start studying the issue seriously.
“Clearly there are reasons we should oversee safe housing in our community,” Dever said. “I just don’t know the best way to do it. I know there is usually a tragedy that causes most regulations to come about, and we want to avoid that at all costs.”
Commissioners are tentatively scheduled to put the issue on the agenda of one of their weekly meetings in early December.