After nearly a quarter of renters rate housing conditions as poor, city leaders question rental inspection program

photo by: Nick Krug

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., is pictured on May 3, 2016.

For every 20 rental units in Lawrence today, only one was inspected by city staff in the past year. After a survey found a significant number of Lawrence residents describe their housing condition as poor, some city leaders are asking whether the city is doing enough inspections.

The resident survey, conducted as part of the city’s recent housing market analysis, indicated that 24 percent of renters rate their housing condition as poor. That percentage is higher for renters with children, at 32 percent. During the City Commission’s discussion of the housing condition responses Tuesday, commissioners questioned what that indicated about the city’s rental inspection program.

City Manager Tom Markus, who has more than 40 years of experience in municipal government, told commissioners that Lawrence has the “least aggressive” rental inspection program that he’s ever worked with.

“I think it’d be interesting to see what this number would look like if you would compare it to other places that have what I consider to be a more normalized inspection program,” Markus said.

Among the commission, though, there are mixed opinions about whether the rental inspection program should be expanded and what impact that might have. According to the city’s annual rental license report, the city inspected 1,016 rental units out of 20,186 licensed units last year, or about 5 percent of the licensed units citywide.

But the survey results also left city leaders with questions. One issue with the survey is that it did not ask respondents what specifically caused them to rate the condition of their housing as poor.

The Planning and Development Department oversees the rental inspection program, and department director Scott McCullough said that when considering the results, there is a question of perspective.

“If it’s the quality of your carpet and the age of your appliances, and those sorts of things, you might think you are living in a very poor property,” McCullough said. “If they are life-safety issues, we hope that people are calling us to have their units inspected.”

However, McCullough said he recognized that some tenants may not want to file complaints against their landlords. Given the overall number of inspections, McCullough said he does think there is a flaw in the program because the city actually inspects so few units over time.

As is, the city is actually on its way to inspecting fewer properties in years to come. Inspections are not just conducted in response to complaints — the program requires that 10 percent of a landlord’s rental units be inspected every three years. However, landlords whose properties have fewer than five violations per unit qualify for a six-year inspection cycle. In the first cycle of inspections, more than 90 percent of landlords qualified for the six-year cycle, according to the report. Due to this, the report states that the number of inspections required to be completed from 2018 to 2020 will be “substantially fewer” than the 2015-2017 cycle.

The survey did ask all residents, both homeowners and renters, with homes deemed to be in fair or poor condition and also needing repairs to identify the most important repair work that was needed. Important repairs identified included weatherization, roof repairs, heating/cooling work and bathroom plumbing repairs. When those same residents were asked why important repairs had not yet been made, about three in five renters, or 57 percent, said their landlords either refused to make the repairs or have yet to make the repairs despite requests.

Commissioner Leslie Soden said she thinks the survey indicates that housing quality is an issue in Lawrence, which she said also ties into the city’s affordable housing shortage. She said she’d like to see the format of the rental inspection program change.

“We have an affordable housing problem, but the affordable housing that we do have also needs to be safe,” Soden said. “It seems like that the more affordable a unit is, sometimes it may not be in the best condition. So we need to make sure that there is at least some kind of baseline condition that units meet.”

Not everyone on the commission agrees with that. Commissioner Matthew Herbert, who owns Renaissance Property Management, said that he thinks the city needs more information about why residents describe their housing as being in poor condition. Like McCullough, he said it’s possible that some of those issues could be more cosmetic, as opposed to related to health and safety issues that would fall under the city’s building code.

Herbert said that the data was undoubtedly alarming, but that it is not much use without more specific information about what constitutes poor condition. He said inspections that deal with major life and safety aspects should remain the city’s top priority.

“Unless I can actually understand what the fundamental issue is that’s leading to that number being that large, I don’t know that we can accurately address it,” Herbert said. “To me, it all comes back to that we have to establish what our priority is.”

Herbert said his view is that the commission that expanded the rental inspection program in 2014 dealt with the issue intelligently, and that the less-aggressive inspection levels were a way to balance the economic impact. Herbert said that if the city were to conduct more inspections or to include more cosmetic aspects in the inspection criteria, in addition to the life and safety issues, that would only mean more inspection fees for landlords. In the end, he said those costs would be passed on to renters.

“If we truly go for a much more aggressive approach, while we may increase that number of people who rate their houses being in good condition versus poor or fair, we will also, in the same stroke of the pen, increase rents in the community,” Herbert said.

The annual rental licensing report states that a tenet of the program, when expanded in 2014, was for it to be budget neutral. For instance, similar to the city’s water or trash services, the fees collected from landlords are intended to cover the cost of operating the program.

Soden said she thinks the first thing the city needs to do is find out whether it can do more inspections with its current staff. She also said she thinks there may be ways to conduct more inspections while minimizing cost, such as inspecting multiple units at a time when there are several units on the same property. While Soden agreed with Herbert that any cost a landlord undertakes can be passed on to the tenant, she said she didn’t think that’s a reason not to increase inspections.

“I don’t think it’s a reason not to do it,” Soden said. “Safety is extremely important to the city. Someone living in their home or apartment needs to have the peace of mind that their house and the house next door has been inspected and is safe.”

As far as a potential approach, Soden said she thinks the city could do more inspections on “habitual violators.” She said she thinks those landlords with a lot of repeat violations should have a large percentage of their units inspected annually. Whatever the model be, Soden said the program needs to be reconsidered.

“People have an expectation of renting a place to live that’s safe to live in and up to code,” Soden said. “That’s why we have code.”

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