It’s not a bad thing that Lawrence city commissioners are taking the time to address various concerns with an expanded rental inspection program. This is a significant change, and now is the time to try to anticipate problems and write the ordinance in a way to avoid those issues.
The concerns that prompted the latest setback to the proposed ordinance focused on the privacy rights of tenants who occupy the units being inspected. The people voicing this concern are right that apartment inspections shouldn’t be used as an opportunity for officials to conduct essentially an illegal search for evidence that could be used against a tenant. The point of the inspections is to examine the physical dwelling, not the belongings of the renter.
It seems that most of the privacy concerns could be addressed by a good notification system for the inspections. In fact, such a system already exists for the current inspection program and would logically be expanded to cover the broader program.
A staff memo that accompanied last week’s City Commission agenda should allay many of the renters’ fears. In it, the city planning staff indicates that inspectors focus on maintenance and safety issues. To their knowledge, since the current rental inspection program went into effect in 2001, no renter has been charged with any infraction in municipal or district courts on the basis of alleged illegal activity reported by a city inspector. That’s not to say that inspectors wouldn’t report that they’d found a bomb or a dead body at a property, but such reports obviously would be very rare.
The memo also noted that the city gives, and would continue to give, landlords several days notice for all inspections so tenants would have ample time to prepare for the visit. It might be worthwhile for the city to be specific in how tenants are notified that an inspection is going to take place. Is a phone or text message good enough? Should that notice be left to the landlord or come directly from the city? Most landlords can be trusted to properly notify their tenants, but getting the information to the tenants in a timely fashion is a key part of addressing the privacy issue.
The goal of the inspection and registration program is to ensure that rental property in Lawrence is safe and well-maintained. The way inspections currently are conducted seems to indicate that goal can be accomplished without undue invasion of tenants’ privacy so applying the same standards to the expanded inspection program should address those concerns.