A proposal to expand the city’s rental licensing program appears to be just as dividing among the field of Lawrence City Commission candidates as it is among landlords and renters.
Of the nine commission candidates who participated in Tuesday night’s forum by the Voter Education Coalition, five supported increased rental licensing, while the rest either opposed or had concerns about the proposal.
“It is needed,” said City Commission candidate Scott Criqui, who said the issue was both a safety and an economic development issue. “No one wants to live in a city where your housing stock is blighted.”
Cost — both to the city to run the licensing program and to tenants who may see an increase in rent prices — was cited as the major concern with the proposal.
“My concern is the cost and the return on the investment for the city,” said candidate Judy Bellome. “Can these costs really and truly be monitored?
Overall, five candidates — Criqui, Michael Rost, Leslie Soden, Terry Riordan and Rob Chestnut — indicated support for an increased rental licensing program.
None of the five gave details of how their plan would work, such as fees or licensing requirements, but all said a program that goes beyond the city’s current system was desirable.
“I think there is a way to do this that will be fair to everyone,” Chestnut said.
Four candidates — Bellome, Jeremy Farmer, Reese Hays and City Commissioner Mike Amyx — either raised concerns or were noncommittal on the proposal.
Hays said he wants residents to speak up on the subject in order to determine what the majority of residents want to see in a rental registration program. Farmer said he could see both sides of the issue, saying the program could improve safety but also was concerned landlords may pass along licensing fees to low income residents in the form of higher rents.
Amyx said he was concerned about the expense the program would add to the city budget, and he said he wanted to better understand why the city’s current system of responding to complaints from tenants wasn’t adequate.
A majority of commissioners in November said they were ready to move forward on a new program that would require every rental unit in the city — about 18,000 of them — to register with the city and undergo periodic inspections for code violations.
The city’s current program only requires single family rental properties to register and be inspected.
The city has estimated startup costs may be about $370,000, and the city may need to charge a rental registration fee of $30 per unit. Some landlords in the community have questioned the proposal, but several residents of rental neighborhoods have lobbied for the changes. It is unclear whether the current City Commission will seek to approve a new plan before the April City Commission elections.
On other issues raised at the forum:
• Seven of the nine candidates generally supported the idea of a citywide, curbside recycling program. Only Rost and Amyx expressed significant concerns about the proposal. Amyx said he was concerned about what an increased fee for recycling — coupled with possible increases in water and sewer rates — would do to the monthly utility bills of residents. Rost said he had cost concerns and also questioned whether increased emissions from additional trucks used to collect recycling largely offset the environmental benefits of a recycling program.
Tuesday’s event was the first major candidate forum of the campaign. Candidates Will Olson and Nicholas Marlo did not participate.
A second candidate forum is set for Saturday. The community organization Cadre Lawrence is set to host a forum at 10 a.m. at Maceli’s, 1031 New Hampshire St. Organizers have said the forum is expected to touch on economic development topics.
A Feb. 26 primary will narrow the field of 11 City Commission candidates down to six. The general election — where the top three vote winners will take a seat on the commission — will be April 2.