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.