Lawrence City Commission to discuss strengthening city’s rental inspection program

photo by: Mike Yoder/Journal-World File Photo

Houses in a neighborhood just west of downtown Lawrence are shown in this file photo from November 2011.

Close to 60% of Lawrence residents are renters, but an extremely small number of the city’s rental properties — under 1% in recent years — are inspected annually for code and safety violations. That could soon change.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission will consider the first draft of amendments to the city’s rental inspection ordinance, which includes provisions to increase the number of units inspected and to reduce the number of violations that allow landlords to qualify for less-frequent inspections, among other proposed changes. Commissioners agreed in August that the current inspection program is inadequate and expressed interest in a potential overhaul.

In 2019, the city inspected only 206 of the 21,174 rental units licensed by the city, or a little less than 1%, according to the city’s annual rental licensing and inspection report, and the pandemic resulted in even fewer rentals being inspected in 2020. Code Enforcement Manager Brian Jimenez told the Journal-World that the city stopped all rental inspections in March 2020 and only began performing them again in August of this year. He said that as a result, inspection information for 2020-2021 will be minimal.

About 59% of Lawrence residents live in rental properties, according to the U.S. Census estimates, and discussions about the condition of some of the city’s rentals and the city’s role in inspections have been going on for years.

Before 2014, the city only inspected rentals that were single-family homes and did not have a program to inspect apartments or any other form of multi-family rentals, which include older homes split up into multiple apartments. Demands for the city to inspect Lawrence’s apartments date back to at least 2007. At that time, representatives of the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods called for the city to inspect all types of rentals after seeing several rental homes deteriorate to the point that they’d become candidates for demolition, as the Journal-World reported. Several landlords opposed the idea, with one calling it an unnecessary expansion of government bureaucracy.

After a prolonged debate and continued pushback from landlords, the commission ultimately passed a “compromise” inspection program for apartments and other multi-family rentals in 2014. The program represented a compromise after the initial proposal failed to pass the commission and was subsequently made less vigorous, as the Journal-World reported in 2014. The program requires only 10% of a landlord’s rental units to be inspected every three years and includes an incentive program — proposed by the landlords — that qualifies property owners for a six-year inspection cycle as long as fewer than five violations are found per unit. Though rentals are subject to the entirety of city code, only a list of 27 specific violations counts against a landlord for the purposes of the incentive program.

The adequacy of the rental inspection program was questioned in 2018, after a resident survey conducted as part of the city’s housing study found a quarter of renters rated their housing condition as poor. Then-City Manager Tom Markus, who had more than 40 years of experience in municipal government, told the commission at the time that Lawrence had the “least aggressive” rental inspection program that he’d ever worked with, but no changes were ultimately made.

The discussion gained more traction in 2020, after now-Vice Mayor Courtney Shipley, whose campaign priorities included improving the city’s rental inspections, questioned why the rental inspection program the city developed for Airbnbs and other short-term rentals was more stringent than the program for the city’s long-term rental properties. In August, Shipley and other commissioners expressed interest in reassessing multiple aspects of the rental inspection program, including the number of inspections completed and the incentive program.

The proposed amendments to the ordinance, which city staff is seeking commission direction on as part of Tuesday’s meeting, are as follows, according to a city staff memo.

• Sample size: Under the current program, the city inspects 10% of a landlord’s units, not to exceed 15 units total, every three years. The proposed amendment would increase that sample to 20%, not to exceed 25 of a landlord’s units.

• Incentive program: Under the current program, all of a landlord’s properties are exempt from inspections for six years if fewer than five violations are found per unit. The proposed amendment would reduce the number of violations to qualify for the six-year inspection cycle from five to three.

• Violations list: Under the current program, there is a list of 27 violations that a landlord can be cited for. The proposed amendment would eliminate the list, meaning that any violation of city code or the city’s property maintenance code would count as a violation.

• Additional inspection: Under the current program, if more than five violations per unit are discovered, the city may, with at least 72-hour notice, inspect an additional 10% of a landlord’s units, not to exceed 15 units. The proposed amendment would reduce the number of violations that trigger additional inspection to three, and increase the number of additional inspections to 20% of a landlord’s units, not to exceed 25 units.

• Exemption for new properties: Under the current program, new construction or major reconstruction is exempt from inspection for six years after the property passes its final building inspection. The proposed amendment would increase that period to 10 years.

The Lawrence City Commission will meet virtually at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, and some staff will be in place at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St. The public may attend the meeting in person at City Hall or participate virtually by following directions included in the commission’s meeting agenda, which is available on the city’s website, lawrenceks.org.

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