Bill would require warrant for cities, counties to inspect rental property

? A bill pending in the Kansas Legislature could wipe out part of Lawrence’s 2-year-old landlord licensing ordinance because it allows the city to inspect residential rental units without first obtaining permission from the landlord or a search warrant.

House Bill 2665 would prohibit cities and counties from adopting local laws that allow periodic inspection of rental housing without a search warrant, and it would declare any existing ordinances that don’t meet the bill’s standards null and void.

It also says tenants would retain the right to request an inspection, provided they are not subject to an eviction order. But even those could not take place before the landlord has been notified.

Nobody from Lawrence was present in person when the House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee conducted a hearing on the bill Wednesday, but Lawrence Mayor Mike Amyx submitted written testimony, strongly opposing the legislation.

“Local elected officials should have the right to establish programs, including rental licensing programs, that promote the health and safety of the residents of their communities,” Amyx said.

Lawrence is just one of several cities that have adopted landlord licensing laws in recent years. Overland Park, Mission, Manhattan and Hutchinson have also adopted similar ordinances recently. Kansas City, Kan., has had one in place since 1996.

Lawrence’s ordinance, adopted in 2014, requires any residential property owner to obtain a license before he or she can lease that property to a tenant.

It also provides that all residential rental units be inspected on roughly a three-year cycle. For landlords who own multiple units, however, the city inspects only 10 percent of those units. It also states specifically that landlords have no obligation to obtain the tenant’s consent to an inspection.

But a key part of Lawrence’s program that could run afoul of the bill, if it becomes law, is the “right of entry” provision that gives the city authority to enter any rental dwelling, after giving the owner 72 hours notice, if it has “reasonable suspicion” that there are conditions inside that are “unsafe, dangerous, hazardous or a public nuisance.”

In those cases, the inspector is required to attempt to contact the tenant first. But if the tenant can’t be contacted, or denies permission for the inspector to enter, the inspector is authorized to seek an administrative search warrant.

“These things spread like a virus,” said Luke Bell, general counsel for the Kansas Association of Realtors, which supports the bill. “They all go to local conferences, they have little meetings every once in a while, and they spread ideas. And typically what you find is once this is enacted in one community, it spreads very quickly. And we believe we’re entering a wave of communities adopting these, based upon the pace of communities that have adopted them over the last couple of years.”

Bell and other supporters of the bill said its purpose is to protect the privacy rights of both property owners and tenants, and to rein in overly zealous building inspectors who use the power to conduct code inspections as a pretext for conducting wide-ranging searches.

“They’re opening refrigerators or cabinet doors, drawers,” said Ed Jaskinia, president of the Associated Landlords of Kansas. “What kind of code violation are you looking for there? It may be a rare thing, but it can and does happen.”

But officials from several communities and neighborhood groups throughout Kansas testified against the bill, saying it would effectively eliminate an important tool used to prevent urban blight and slum conditions.

Greg Binns, who serves on the Hutchinson Housing Commission, told of an 8-year-old Hutchinson boy who died in a house fire on Christmas Eve, 2014, in a house that had been illegally split into apartments, where electrical circuits were overloaded from space heaters because the house had no furnace.

“He was somebody’s child, grandchild, and he died so needlessly,” he said. “Had we had our inspection program at that time, we would have required the heater be replaced, and Joey would be alive today.”

Debby Graber, who directs the licensing program in Wyandotte County, said people who engage in the commercial business of renting out housing to the public should be required to adhere to certain standards.

“Rental licensing is based on the premise that landlords are business owners,” she said. “They are doing it for profit. No one told them they had to be landlords. This was their choice. And as their choice, they have a responsibility not only to the property that they are renting, but to the surrounding community.”

An attorney from the Revisor of Statutes’ office pointed out that the bill would need several clarifications before it could be enacted. He noted, for example, that it does not specify whether municipalities would need to seek administrative or criminal search warrants to enter a house, and that different legal standards apply to each.

He also said the bill in its current form does not define what constitutes “notification” of an upcoming inspection.

The committee took no action on the bill Wednesday. Rep. Mark Hutton, R-Wichita, did not indicate when the committee might vote on it.