Archive for Tuesday, November 27, 2012

City commissioners move forward on expanding rental registration program to all rentals in Lawrence

November 27, 2012


Get out your checklist, Lawrence landlords.

A majority of city commissioners on Tuesday said they were ready to move forward on a new program that would require every rental unit in the city — all 18,000 of them — to register with the city and undergo periodic inspections for code violations.

“I have seen some pretty awful sites in town that need to be cleaned up,” Mayor Bob Schumm said. “I think this is going to be a big step for the community, and a positive step.”

At the moment, though, it is a step with a lot of unanswered details. Commissioners did not approve a specific program Tuesday evening. Instead, they directed staff members to prepare a report on how to implement a rental registration program that eventually would cover every rental unit in the city.

But commissioners said because of the enormity of the task, they understand it may take several years to fully implement the program. Commissioners likely will receive the report in January. Commissioners approved creation of the report on a 5-0 vote, but City Commissioner Mike Amyx indicated he may not be able to support the final plan. He had argued the city should expand the program to inspect only rentals 50 years or older.

Currently the city requires only rental homes in single-family-zoned neighborhoods to register, which includes an inspection once every three years. The single-family rentals, however, represent only about 10 percent of the city’s rental units.

City staff members are estimating they will need to hire five new code enforcement officers and two new administrative support positions to fully implement the rental inspection program. Startup costs are estimated to be about $370,000. Commissioners were told the current $25-per-year rental registration fee may need to be raised to $30 to fully cover the operating costs of the rental inspection program.

But commissioners directed staff members to look at several scenarios that may require city staffers to do fewer inspections. Those include the idea of allowing landlords who have routinely passed inspections to have units inspected on a less regular basis — perhaps once every five years instead of every three. Commissioners also mentioned the idea of using a sampling method to inspect large apartment complexes, rather than inspecting each unit.

Leaders from about eight different neighborhoods urged city commissioners to expand the program. A pair of representatives with the Lawrence Apartment Association argued against an expansion, warning the city that it was creating a large bureaucracy to tackle a limited problem. They also said the inspections and fees would place an undeserved burden on the apartment industry.

“I challenge you to find an industry that is more vested in this community than the apartment industry,” said Matt Hoy, a Lawrence attorney who represents the association. “Who pays more in property taxes in this town than the apartment industry? They’re your friends, your neighbors. The Lawrence Apartment Association is not an organization full of rich fat cats.”

Commissioners tried to alleviate some concerns of the industry.

“I know a lot of good landlords who are fearful of this,” City Commissioner Hugh Carter said. “But I think this is just a responsibility we have. I think this will level the playing field for the industry though. Cheaters rent cheaper, typically.”

Commissioners said rental inspections would continue to focus on living and safety issues such as ensuring rental units have proper ingress and egress, smoke alarms, ventilation and other similar code issues. But commissioners also said the inspections could provide the city an opportunity to work on broader neighborhood issues such as problems with trash or poorly kept exteriors.


Richard Heckler 5 years, 6 months ago

'Startup costs are estimated to be about $370,000."

The city gives away millions to developers. It is ready to blow $25-$40 million on a field house we don't need. It typically finds millions of dollars when it is a project they are interested in accomplishing.

Not having enough inspectors is not a new problem. Code enforcement has been under staffed for years. Not funding ENOUGH code enforcement staff is the same as deregulation. The current regulations are not enforceable due to lack of staff. City Hall knows this.

$30 per property is not that big a deal and if it helps fund the project this should work.

Age of a structure should have no bearing. In Lawrence,Kansas a relatively new structure can be in violation. Not only that builders and property owners cannot be trusted to honor site plans. Why? They know enforcement is weak.

Does a furnace that has been red tagged necessarily get replaced? Not from what I hear. There is not enforcement.

Keep in mind elected officials,people in city hall and other movers and shakers are property owners/slum lords. Don't expect much substance anytime soon. If ever.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 6 months ago

"City Commissioner Mike Amyx indicated he may not be able to support the final plan. He had argued the city should expand the program to inspect only rentals 50 years or older."

This is very arbitrary, and doesn't take into account that there are numerous structures well over 50 years old that have been very well-maintained, and lots of others between 20-50 years old that haven't.

cowboy 5 years, 6 months ago

Sounds like a major cluster **** already. My thoughts.. Ditch the existing inspections Inspect all over 30 years old Inspect only every 5 years Create some schedule for compliance i.e. safety immediate , codes compliance on a longer period Change the permitting process so owners can have repairs made or do themselves and have an inspection , currently they would have to have a licensed contractor perform the repair on plumbing / electrical / structural. Publish an inspection criteria so owners can prepare and inspections will be consistent. Including what features will be waived like egress requirements in older units.

cowboy 5 years, 6 months ago

There is a grandfather clause that exempts older properties from certain codes , egress being one of them. not true for Section 8 properties though.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 6 months ago

I see a burgeoning government bureaucracy that once implemented, will be nearly impossible to reign in.

If there is a serious problem that needs to be addressed right now, then do it. If it's a small problem, one that can wait, then wait until we're in better times. If this is a feel good solution in search of a significant problem, then put this so far on the back burner that it'll never see the light of day.

jafs 5 years, 6 months ago

There is a serious problem, and this is their way of addressing it.

You wouldn't understand, since you haven't rented any residential properties in Lawrence recently.

Kendall Simmons 5 years, 6 months ago

Of course, you haven't had any rental properties inspected in Lawrence, either.

Spending thousands of dollars on furnace ventilation (which had been approved countless times before) after one inspector said it had to be done differently, then getting the work approved by that inspector. And the very next inspection, with a different inspector (of course), being told that everything you'd had done was wrong and you had to spend thousands more doing something different. And, no, the regulatons hadn't changed. The first inspector had just been "wrong"...according to the second inspector.

Or looking at buying an older rental property that had just been inspected and approved a month earlier. Only to discover that the bathroom floor was literally sagging under your footsteps, and the floor under the toilet and tub were collapsing. That the house was literally strung with extension cords...even to the refrigerator and electric stove (!) and, according to the tenants, they were there when the inspector came. And multiple leaks in the roof. We wouldn't house our dog there!! But it was owned by a certain Lawrence landlord, so I guess that counted more than safety.

jafs 5 years, 6 months ago

That's a problem - regulations should be consistent and straightforward.

And another problem, if some landlords are getting away with stuff they shouldn't be.

Of course, none of that argues against regulations, it just argues for them to be consistent and consistently enforced, right?

And, for them to be high enough that conditions like the ones you mention aren't acceptable.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 6 months ago

Just to be clear, if there is an expansion of a government bureaucracy, the cost of that will be passed on to the citizens. If it's done in such a way as to have landlords pay a fee, then that fee will be passed on to renters in the form of higher rents. If violations are found and costly repairs made, those expenses will be passed on to renters. And should the whole system become onerous enough that some landlords will remove their property from the rental market, then with that reduced supply we can expect higher demand which equals higher rents.

I'll say it again, if this is a significant problem in Lawrence, then by all means, fix the problem. But if the percentage of slum like dwellings does not warrant what will essentially be a rent increase for every tenant, then let's just target those distressed dwellings with the resources we already have in place.

jafs 5 years, 6 months ago

Only as long as they can get renters to pay higher prices - also, they can almost certainly get a bunch of tax write-offs for improvements. If the repairs are "costly", then the violations are serious and should be addressed.

$370K is peanuts for government (that's the start-up cost), and $30/yr is an easy cost for most tenants to absorb ($2.5/month).

Having rented for a number of years in Lawrence, and not renting "slum" type properties, I can say with absolute confidence that most landlords don't live up to their obligations, and many aren't even aware of them. We only had one good landlord. The standards are rather low, and should be higher, in my view, as well.

Personally, I'd gladly pay an extra $2-3/month for better standards and enforcement (not now, of course, since we currently own and have no plans to rent again in Lawrence).

jhawkinsf 5 years, 6 months ago

It certainly is easy to spend someone else's money, jafs. $370K/ here, $30/yr. there, for now. Costs will certainly go up. That's how government bureaucracy works.

Interesting that you chastise me for being a non renter with an opinion, then admit you are also a non renter. Oh, "recently", that's the key. Well, I do rent commercially and have rented residentially. Additionally, I've rented in places where regulations have become so burdensome that the rental market has become skewed. Perhaps having experience outside the Lawrence cocoon gives a greater perspective you lack. :-)

Again, raise the standards, raise the regulations, increase the size of the government entity that enforces and you will see an increase in rents.

Just out of curiosity, jafs, what percentage of Lawrence rentals would you say falls into that category of severely distressed slum like conditions in need of serious and costly repairs, the kind such that the current system fails to address but that a new bureaucracy will address?

jafs 5 years, 6 months ago

Government money is "our" money, not somebody else's.

And, this is exactly the sort of thing that government should be doing, in my view - there are many other cases in which I would argue against government spending - $330 million to renovate the statehouse would be a glaring example of that.

Well, let's see - we've rented more than owned over the last 15 years in Lawrence by a large margin.

The current system is "complaint driven", except for singe family rentals - as such, it's hard to know how many problematic rentals there are - a complaint driven system is a bad one, in my opinion, because many tenants aren't informed and assertive, and may understandably not want to alienate their landlords, given that they depend on them for a number of things, including a good reference if they want to move.

You seem to miss the point here - the suggestion is to expand the city inspection process so that it covers all the rentals, rather than just single family ones - that way the city can find out about problems without relying on tenant complaints.

Having lived in NYC and Chicago for many years before moving to Lawrence, I'd say without question that Lawrence is a difficult place to find a decent rental for a decent cost. In general, costs of living are higher than wages/income in Lawrence, which is often not true in other markets, where those tend to balance out, which makes sense.

So, a snub of the nose to you, concerning your idea that I'm "Lawrence cocooned". I've lived 16 out of my 51 years in Lawrence, and the rest somewhere else, including NY and Chicago.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 6 months ago

So, let's do a little math. Suppose I knew a married couple, about 50 years old, no children, each employed at the minimum wage of $7.25/hr. ($15,080./yr. each for a total of $30,160). If that couple spent roughly one third of their income in rent (a fairly standard assumption), then their rent would be about $835/mo.

At that amount, is it more likely or less likely that they will be able to find a good rental property? Not in New York or San Francisco, two places I've lived. (Chicago, I have no idea.) I think the chances are good that they can find a good rental in Lawrence. (Just as an example, every day I pass some brand new townhouses that are renting for an advertised $550/mo. Brand new, mind you). So if a couple such as described were to tell me that they had several bad experiences, I might raise my eyebrows a bit in surprise.

Of course, I would venture a guess that by age 50, no kids, no drugs, no serious vices, even a moderately stable employment history and we're suddenly talking about people likely earning substantially more than minimum wage. Clearly these are not the people we're talking about when we talk about people living in slum like conditions. Or am I too far out on a limb here? The people I think we're talking about are the subset of the poor who are involved in multiple vices, (drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc.), maybe a history of poor decision making (multiple children they can't afford, a poor work record, a poor record of paying rent on time resulting in a very poor credit rating, etc.). What we're not talking about is the working poor who are trying to get by the best they can. We're talking about an underclass of people who are making poor choices for themselves.

Here's the deal, jafs. As that subset I described becomes smaller and smaller, the less need there is for an expanded bureaucracy when there already exists a remedy. Maybe not a perfect remedy. But one sufficient to deal with the problem. But if you think I'm wrong, please do give me some numbers to contemplate. Of the 10,000 (my very rough guess) rental properties, how many of those fit into that slum like conditions? How many would be red tagged, if an inspector did come around? And even if that number is high, whatever that means, if the landlord simply took that property off the market rather than fix it up, where will those living on the fringe go? To the new shelter? Or if the landlord did fix it up, would these same individuals be able to afford the new rents?

jafs 5 years, 6 months ago

You're just talking past me, and not listening.

Unless the city inspects properties, we don't know how many have serious violations, unless tenants complain.

In my experience, the student population, with attendant parent subsidies, distorts the rental market in Lawrence so that rents are higher and properties are less well maintained than they would be in a market where people actually paid their own rent and demanded better conditions.

I disagree that the "working poor" have an easy time finding decent rentals.

Your numbers are off - first you have to deduct taxes. And, I prefer to spend 25%, rather than 33%, on rent. It's more conservative - 33% is the high end of the recommended amount. If you do that, you wind up with about $500/month rather than your figure. And, if you use a single person, you get about $250/month. What's available for that?

In our years of renting in Lawrence, we only rented one place for less than that. Now it is true that we like single family rentals rather than apartments, and I'm sure that we could have found some cheaper apartments.

NY had rent control for many years, which kept rents low for a lot of people. Without that, it's much harder, of course. But, I believe my main point is correct - most markets "self adjust", meaning that people can't afford to spend more than they have, so wages/income and costs of living tend to balance out. It's not true in a college town, because of the distorting effects of students, and/or in a "bedroom community", which Lawrence seems to have become, in which more people work elsewhere and live here.

When I first moved here, many people both lived and worked in Lawrence - over the years, that's changed quite a bit. Now, many people work elsewhere (where they can find better jobs) and live here, or work here and live somewhere cheaper, like Eudora.

I don't really understand your argument here - what's your point? Everything's fine? No problem? I'm telling you there's a problem, having rented in Lawrence. And, from my perspective, it's not just a problem with "slums", but with low standards for regulation as well, as well as the exemption from regular inspection for all but single family rentals.

We had one decent landlord who lived up to their responsibilities and took care of their property well, and many who didn't. Just thinking about it makes me mad all over again. We had one guy who didn't want to fix the holes in the concrete porch in front of our door that snakes would crawl in and out of, making it hazardous to go in and out of the house.

Our first rental was cheap enough that we didn't mind the lax landlord, but none of the rest were.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 6 months ago

There is so much contradictory information, I hardly know where to begin. You state the student population distorts rents here. But then use rent controls as an example of what? Nothing distorts the market more than rent control. And as someone who has lived in both N.Y. and S.F., I can say with great confidence that for every problem solved by rent control, two problems were created.

Maybe you do want to spend 25% of your income on rent. I want to pay for my house what it sold for 25 years before I bought it. Didn't happen. Oh, well. You get what you pay for. If you want to pay 25%, there's nothing stopping you. But if you want a place that more meets your needs and desires, you may have to spend 33%. I want to go to Pachamama's and pay McDonald's prices, but they just won't let me.

But the bottom line is this, jafs. There is some ill defined problem out there. You can't quantify it, you're not even certain it exists, but you want to create a whole new expanded government bureaucracy to deal with this problem. And you want to do this despite the fact that there is already a remedy in place in the form of a current government entity that deals with these problems when they come up. Talk about a solution in need of a problem.

Is everything fine here, you ask? I rented here in the years of my youth, while going to college, actually going to bars at night in equal measure. I lived in every house on Tennessee and Kentucky Streets. They were called Ling houses then, named after a then somewhat notorious slum landlord. We lived 7 or 8 to a house, in conditions that were far from ideal. The heaters worked sometimes, and the air conditioners were non existent. But considering we were working as little as possible and only that so we could support our partying lifestyle, we got what we paid for. It's what youth is all about. I neither wanted the responsibilities that would come later in life nor was I expecting the amenities that one could expect if one was working full time and paying a reasonable rent. In other words, I got what I paid for.

jafs 5 years, 6 months ago

It's not at all ill defined, and I've defined it for you a number of times already.

Costs of living in Lawrence are high relative to incomes, and the rental market is distorted, so that rentals are overpriced and undermaintained.

A simple change to require all rentals to be periodically inspected is hardly a brand new bureaucracy, it's a simple expansion of an existing one.

Your assertion that working poor folks have an easy time living in Lawrence is way off - I've shown you the numbers. If you're really interested in the difficulties of the working poor, I highly recommend the book "Nickeled and Dimed". It's surprising and upsetting, at least it was for me. One of the big problems that population has is they can't even save up enough money for things like security deposits.

You seem to continually have a rosier than realistic view of many situations, in my opinion - I'd say it's a form of denial.

By the way, you can also find this distorting effect in other areas, like used car sales - I looked at a used car a while back, and it was in poor condition for the price - when I asked who would buy a car in that condition at that price, the guy said "students".

You think it was fine for our landlord to want to leave the snakes under our porch? We weren't paying minimal rent there by any means. And, my point about the percentages is that if poorer folks spend more on their rent, like 33%, that leaves even less available for their other costs of living.

How well do you think you could live on $1000/mth in Lawrence? Bear in mind that those minimum wage jobs almost certainly don't include health insurance.

kuguardgrl13 5 years, 6 months ago

I've lived in and been in enough apartments in this town to tell you that there are problems in any rental from the boarding houses of the student ghetto up to the big, new complexes. The houses are old, and have problems related to those. The complexes have management companies that won't properly clean furnaces, use cheap piping, and let small problems go so long that they turn into big problems. They ream students on things like torn or stained carpet, but won't inspect furnaces as state law says they should, and they use cheap and shoddily done plumping. They spend money on making their offices look brand-spanking new and offering amenities like tanning beds. It's ridiculous.

jafs 5 years, 6 months ago

Complaint based systems put too much of a burden on tenants, who may be justifiably concerned that if they complain, they risk alienating the landlord, on whom they depend for a number of things, including a good reference if/when they move.

HutchSaltHawk 5 years, 6 months ago

I would be willing to bet that all of the single-family homes used as rentals are not inspected. The house next to mine is a dump !

Matthew Herbert 5 years, 6 months ago

As the owner of many rental properties, all of which are currently registered with the city (I paid my annual fee and have never heard from a single inspector, by the way) I am fine with inspections that focus on safety issues. I take pride in the fact that my properties when purchased were run down foreclosures that I have renovated to be in far better condition as rentals than they EVER were as owner-occupied/turned bank-owned properties. I am more than happy to prove to the city that my properties are made safe for tenants. It was the last line of the newspaper article that has me worried about massive government overreach - "But commissioners also said the inspections could provide the city an opportunity to work on broader neighborhood issues such as problems with trash or poorly kept exteriors."

poorly kept exteriors? Seriously? Could you get more vague with your definitions of what your 'inspectors' will be looking for?

Stick to inspections for the purpose of public safety and safety alone. The city commission doesn't need to be spending resources (or billing us to pay for) assessing the quality of the exterior on anyone's property.

Jennifer Dropkin 5 years, 6 months ago

Registration and inspection are good ideas, and it's about time the city took them seriously. While there are responsible landlords in Lawrence, many are slumlords, and they have gotten away with renting out housing that they either don't maintain or ineffectually maintain. Students pay for that kind of housing, and slumlords rely on their naivete and transience to get away with it. I think the city should not only fine slumlords but offer tours of inspection failures to the general public. It's a badly needed reality check for those who think that registration and inspection are "government overreach."

LadyJ 5 years, 6 months ago

Acorn, Renaissance, and Wilbur, did you by any chance get an e-mail from a reporter in Topeka regarding comments you made on this story and wanting to ask you questions?

Matthew Herbert 5 years, 6 months ago

amen. As I stated above, the only properties I purchase are owner-occupied foreclosures that I then turn around and renovate. I've found some AMAZING 'handyman' patch together situations in homes...things you wouldn't even believe. Before you blame landlords for making the town look run down, take a look at all the owner occupied dumps this town has to offer.

jafs 5 years, 6 months ago

I think the distinction is that an owner has a right to put themselves in jeopardy and live in unsafe unsanitary conditions if they like.

Putting a tenant in those conditions is a different story.

LadyJ 5 years, 6 months ago

Inspections only for buildings 50 yrs and older, I don't think Colony Woods was anywhere near 50 yrs old when one of their decks collapsed which led to the city to consider changing the building codes Just because it's newer doesn't mean it's safe, it just means they get a free pass for 50 years.

Loretta James 5 years, 6 months ago

They know jayhawk mgmt doesn't take care of their property since mushroom were growing in the hall. They should have inspected all their propertys, they would have found massive violations.

They should also make the companys give back deposits and the current month rent when they have to move in the middle of the month, no waiting 30 days to refunds it. Quit making it hard on the tenant. Look at all mobil home parks all are in need of bringing up to code.

Also if a city comminsioner is a landlord he should not be part of the planning. Amyx only wants it on property over 50 years old. Has he got a screw loose.

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