Developing a rental registration law that serves both tenants and landlords poses some challenges, and Lawrence city commissioners are smart to take the time to get this ordinance right.
Commissioners put off action earlier this month on a proposed ordinance to create a new rental registration and licensing program that would cover all of the city’s 18,000 rental units. Although they said they still were serious about creating such a program, commissioners wanted the city staff to review and probably trim the list of violations for which a landlord could be cited.
The focus of the ordinance should be on significant safety issues, not on minor upkeep of properties. As presented on Sept. 9, the ordinance would allow landlords to be cited for issues such as dirty furnace filters, broken light switch plates and poorly fitted doors. Taking care of such routine maintenance certainly is the mark of a conscientious landlord, but commissioners are right that those issues don’t rise to the level of fine-able city violations.
Commissioners have heard considerable comment from both landlords, who are concerned about their livelihoods, and from neighborhood leaders, who are concerned about deteriorating properties down the street. They haven’t heard as much from tenants, but the safety of people who rent housing in Lawrence should be the top concern. Thousands of Kansas University students come to Lawrence every year in search of rented housing. Making sure the units they rent pose no health or safety hazards should be a high priority for city officials.
Some landlords and other residents have argued that the free market should be allowed to deal with this issue, that renters should be able to rent whatever housing they want — or can afford — regardless of its condition. It’s also been said that the new rental ordinance likely will cause rents to increase in Lawrence. On the contrary, the city shouldn’t allow rental properties that pose health and safety dangers. Rents may go up, but it seems likely that the competition created by Lawrence’s overbuilt rental market will act to mitigate any increases.
City commissioners are doing their best to balance the concerns of landlords with those of neighbors and tenants. They are right, however, to move forward on an ordinance to crack down on serious health and safety issues in local rental housing.