City agrees to expand rental inspection program to all areas of Lawrence

From mold on the ceiling to faulty smoke alarms, problems in rental properties across the city soon will be more likely to be caught by city inspectors.

Lawrence city commissioners on Tuesday agreed to move forward with a program that for the first time makes every rental unit in the city subject to random inspection. The program, which is expected to begin by late next year, would add about 4,000 apartment inspections each year.

“We want to find bad landlords and get them to correct their behavior,” City Commissioner Bob Schumm said. “This is about the health, safety and welfare of our citizens.”

The city currently operates a rental licensing and inspection program, but it only covers rentals in single-family neighborhoods. The existing program produces about 500 inspections a year. The new program will cover rentals in all types of zoning designations and neighborhoods.

The program, estimated to cost about $385,000 per year to operate, won’t result in every rental unit in the city being inspected every year. As proposed, the program would seek to inspect 10 percent of a landlord’s properties either every three years or every five years. Three years would be the standard time period, but a landlord that has very few violations could go up to five years before a follow-up inspection of their properties.

Other details of the program include:

• Landlords would pay a $10 licensing fee for every rental unit they have in the city, although larger apartment complexes would get a volume discount. Complexes with 51 to 100 units would receive a 10 percent discount, 101 to 150 units a 20 percent discount and complexes with more than 150 units a 30 percent discount.

• Landlords would pay a $50-per-unit inspection fee in the years that their properties are being checked, and only would have to pay it for the number of units actually being inspected.

• Large apartment complexes would have a cap on the number of units that officials will inspect at any given time. Complexes would either have 10 percent of their units inspected or 15 total units, whichever number is smaller.

• The city is projecting it will hire three new inspectors and two new administrative assistants in the development services division to operate the new program.

Commissioners approved the inspection program, which has been in discussion for more than five years, on a 4-1 vote.

Commissioner Mike Amyx voted against the proposal. He said he could support the registration part of the program but was concerned about adding city employees to do inspections. He noted that tenants currently can call the city and ask for an inspection, if they believe there is a problem at their rental unit.

“I’m just not comfortable increasing this level of government,” Amyx said.

But several neighborhood representatives spoke in favor of the program.

“Nobody wants to hurt the people who are good landlords,” said Candice Davis, a resident of the Oread neighborhood. “But there are problems out there. It is just like a restaurant. All restaurants have inspections for public safety. Rentals ought to as well.”

Opposition from the landlord community was fairly muted on Tuesday. A representative from the Lawrence Apartment Association asked the city to provide more breaks on registration fees for large complexes, and to reconsider whether the city is ready to start undertaking the thousands of additional inspections per year that will be required by the program.

City commissioners must still formalize all the details of the program with a new ordinance, which probably will come to the City Commission for approval in the next couple of months. But City Manager David Corliss said money for the new program will be included in the 2014 budget.

In other business, commissioners:

• Unanimously agreed to focus on a location at 925 Iowa Street to house a new public transit hub. Commissioners rejected the idea of locating a transit hub on the grounds of Kansas University’s Memorial Stadium.

• Unanimously directed the city auditor to examine the processes the city is using to ensure it is paying a fair price for about $12 million worth of infrastructure and other construction costs at the Rock Chalk Park sports complex in northwest Lawrence. The auditor also was directed to prepare audits on the financial condition of the city, workload demands for the Lawrence Police Department, the condition of city sidewalks and the efficiency of the downtown parking system.

• Told staff members to continue moving forward on an agreement with the Kansas Department of Transportation that would relieve the state of maintenance responsibilities on the portion of U.S. Highway 40 that also is Sixth Street between Iowa Street and Wakarusa Drive. The agreement would provide the city with state funding for about $3.5 million worth of road projects in exchange for the state dropping its maintenance responsibilities.