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Archive for Saturday, December 14, 2013

Commissioners propose more limited inspections as part of rental licensing program

December 14, 2013

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A new plan to narrow the scope of a proposed rental licensing and inspection program has emerged at Lawrence City Hall.

Mayor Mike Dever and Commissioner Mike Amyx have proposed a new ordinance that would cut by more than half the number of items an inspector could cite as a violation during an inspection of a rental unit. The ordinance also would sunset the new program at the end of 2017, meaning commissioners at that time would have to take a vote to extend the program or it automatically would end.

"I feel like we should start with small bites on this," Dever said of the program, which would cover essentially every rental unit in the city.

The Basics

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 will inspect only 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 between inspections. Properties would qualify for the incentive if they 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.

Both Dever and Amyx have expressed concern about the proposed program becoming broader than its original purpose, which was to ensure basic life, health and safety codes were being met in the approximately 18,000 rental units across the city.

As a result, the pair is proposing to delete 38 of the 66 different items that previously were proposed as potential rental license violations. Some of the proposed deletions include exterior issues such as uncut grass or improperly parked vehicles on the property. But other proposed deletions include requirements such as: handrails for balconies and decks; minimum ceiling heights for habitable rooms; and certain requirements for kitchen and food preparation areas.

But Dever said it was important to note that the deleted items would continue to remain in the city's code, and landlords could face a fine if they don't fix the items. For example, if an inspector sees a balcony with a broken railing, the violation could be noted and paperwork could be filed that would require the landlord to fix the railing or face a fine. But unlike the previous proposal, the city could not deny a landlord a rental license for the property if the railing is not fixed.

Commissioner reaction to the shorter list of violations was mixed. Commissioner Jeremy Farmer said he may be comfortable with the shorter list, as long as a system is in place for city inspectors to note other obvious code violations that could be followed up on at a later time.

Commissioner Terry Riordan said Friday he was still reviewing the changes, but would be cautious about pruning the violations list.

"I'm going to look at it very closely," Riordan said. "I'm going to be very hard-pressed to make any changes that involve standards of safety."

Reaction to the idea of the ordinance possibly facing a sunset at the end of 2017 is also generating concern. Both Farmer and Riordan said they potentially have concerns about that idea. Farmer previously had proposed the city run a small-scale pilot project to learn more information about how the city's inspection processes would work. But he said he was worried about fully creating the program — which would include hiring five new inspectors —only to have it perhaps be disbanded in three years.

"A sunset provision also really will make this an election issue again in two years," Farmer said.

Commissioners will discuss the latest proposal at their 6:35 p.m. meeting on Tuesday at City Hall.

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