Lawrence City Commission supportive of changes to strengthen city’s rental inspection program

photo by: City of Lawrence

The Lawrence City Commission discusses changes to the city's rental inspection program as part of its meeting Sept. 21, 2021.

City leaders are supportive of moving forward with changes to strengthen the city’s rental inspection program, and discussion will continue on which specific changes will best accomplish that.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission considered 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.

Code Enforcement Manager Brian Jimenez said that under the current setup, 92% of landlords qualified for the less-frequent inspection schedule. Jimenez said that the less-frequent inspection cycle is meant to be an incentive for landlords who have minimal violations, but that the program is clearly not working as intended.

“One may say if there’s 90% of the people getting the incentive cycle, maybe the test is too easy,” Jimenez said.

In 2019, the city inspected only 206 of the 21,174 rental units licensed by the city, or a little less than 1%. Commissioners agreed in August that the current inspection program was inadequate and expressed interest in a potential overhaul.

Under the current program, the city inspects 10% of a landlord’s units, not to exceed 15 units total, every three years. 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 increase that sample to 20%, not to exceed 25 of a landlord’s units, and reduce the number of violations to qualify for the six-year inspection cycle from five to three. Jimenez said that the commission could also decide to do away with the incentive program altogether, but that would likely require additional inspection staff.

Another significant change would essentially broaden the potential code issues that would qualify as a violation under the rental inspection program. 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. Jimenez said the current setup resulted in landlords getting two reports of violations, and the proposed change would bring the rental inspection program in line with the ordinance the city has for Airbnbs and other short-term rentals.

Commissioners were in favor of moving forward with changes to the ordinance, though there was discussion about how best to increase compliance with the city’s property management code.

Commissioner Stuart Boley said he had some concerns with the proposal to increase the sample size from 10% to 20%, and that he’d like to see some suggestions from city staff about how to focus compliance efforts on the worst offenders.

“I think we have scarce compliance resources, and I think it’s really important to focus those compliance resources on noncompliance,” Boley said. “So I support inspections, but I think we have to realize that the goal is compliance with the property code.”

Mayor Brad Finkeldei, Commissioner Jennifer Ananda, and Vice Mayor Courtney Shipley indicated they were generally in favor of a higher number of units being inspected, and Shipley said she thought more inspections would bring more units into compliance. Commissioner Lisa Larsen said one way to focus on habitual violators would be to strengthen the ordinance’s current language regarding additional inspections.

Under the current program, if more than five violations per unit are discovered, the city “may” inspect an additional 10% of a landlord’s units, not to exceed 15 units. A proposed amendment would reduce the number of violations that trigger the potential for additional inspections to three, and would increase the number of additional inspections to 20% of a landlord’s units, not to exceed 25 units. Larsen said she would also like to see the “may” changed to “shall.”

Jimenez said he would bring the draft ordinance back for the commission’s consideration within the next two months, with the potential for any changes to go into effect Jan. 1.

In other business, the commission approved a budget adjustment that includes an approximately $4.7 million addition for a new financial software system. The next step, to issue bonds for the system, was deferred and will come back to the commission at a later meeting.


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