Approval of a proposed program to license and inspect virtually every rental unit in Lawrence was delayed for at least two more weeks after a surge of last-minute opposition emerged Tuesday at City Hall.
After a spirited discussion, city commissioners at their weekly meeting ultimately unanimously agreed to delay any action on the proposal for two weeks. The commission during the last two days received approximately 40 letters in opposition to the ordinance, many of them citing concerns that the city inspection process would be an unfair invasion of privacy of renters.
"I don't think we have enough data to mitigate the fears that people have about this program at this point," Commissioner Jeremy Farmer said.
Farmer made an unexpected proposal to create a pilot project for the rental licensing and inspection program. He proposed that the city solicit approximately 25 landlords to volunteer for the registration and inspection program during the first quarter of 2014. The volunteer landlords could provide the city feedback on how the system worked.
But Farmer's idea never won the support of a majority of the commission, and ultimately commissioners ended more than three hours of discussion on the ordinance by tabling it for two weeks and asking staff members to come back with more information.
The new information may include a new list of proposed violations that could be levied against a rental unit. Mayor Mike Dever and City Commissioner Mike Amyx both argued that the proposed list up for approval on Tuesday was too broad. Both said the violations should be focused more on violations that clearly were a threat to a renter's life and safety.
The city's proposed program essentially would cover every rental unit the city. Here are some details:
• Every apartment unit in the city would be required to register with the city each year. But city officials only will inspect a portion of units each year.
• Under normal circumstances, landlords would have 10 percent of their total units in the city — up to a maximum of 15 units — inspected once every three years.
• Landlords could qualify for an incentive that would allow their properties to go six years in-between inspections. Properties would qualify for the incentive if their properties previously passed a city inspection with no major violations.
• The city plans to hire five-full time inspectors and an administrative staff position for the program. The approximately $400,000 in program costs would be paid for through registration and inspection fees paid by landlords.
Commissioners Bob Schumm and Terry Riordan said they were ready to approve the ordinance largely as proposed on Tuesday, but said they were open to negotiations on the list of violations. Amyx and Dever are scheduled to sit down with city staff members during the next two weeks to craft a new list of violations that will be presented to the full commission at its Dec. 17 meeting.
The current list of violations include a range of issues such as nonworking smoke alarms, faulty furnaces and hot water heaters, trash in yards and improperly fitting doors.
Tuesday's delay comes after commissioners already have approved funding for the licensing and inspection program in the 2014 budget. But commissioners have been struggling for months on the specific wording of the ordinance that would govern the program.
In recent days, commissioners were hit with a surge of opposition from both landlords and tenants. On Tuesday, the Kansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union also notified the city that it was opening an investigation into legal concerns with the proposed program. Specifically, the ACLU's attorney said he had concerns about whether the ordinance met the constitutional provisions protecting people from unreasonable government searches.
The bulk of the letters city officials received in the last two days appear to be part of an organized opposition group. Many of them were the same letter but signed by different tenants of apartment complexes around town.
At Tuesday's meeting, the crowd was evenly split among supporters and opponents of the proposed program. The program has received significant support from several neighborhood associations who believe the city's stock of rental housing can be improved.
In recent days, concerns from tenants have mounted after questions have been raised about how invasive the city inspections would be. City staff members have argued the city has successfully run a similar but more limited rental inspection program for the last 11 years.
"We're not doing this to get into people's houses," Riordan said. "We're doing this to protect people who need protection."
Dever, though, said he had serious concerns about whether the city has a good understanding of the amount of time and money it will take to run the inspection program.