City leaders say Lawrence’s rental inspection program is inadequate, express interest in potential overhaul

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.

City of Lawrence leaders say they are interested in strengthening the city’s rental inspection program, which currently inspects very few of the city’s more than 21,000 rental properties.

As part of their work session Tuesday evening, city commissioners all agreed Lawrence’s rental inspection program is inadequate, and that they are interested in increasing the number of units inspected and making other changes. Because of the way the current program is set up, the city inspected about 1% of the city’s rental properties last year.

Mayor Jennifer Ananda said that in addition to inspecting more units overall, the city should consider a tiered system to determine the number of units required to be inspected annually based on factors such as the age of the property and the landlord or property owner’s history of violations.

“It’s a safety aspect more than anything,” Ananda said. “But I think that those kind of considerations could be really important to prevent us inspecting 200 apartments that were built last year, but also to ensure we’re being responsible to our duties to our residents.”

More than half of Lawrence residents live in rental units, and previous resident surveys have indicated many residents feel their units are not in good condition. Last year 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.

The small number of inspections is due in part to the format of the program, which was set up in its current form in 2014 amid strong resistance from some landlords and property owners. The program requires only 10% of a landlord’s rental units to be inspected every three years, and as long as fewer than five violations are found the landlord qualifies for a reduced inspection schedule. Specifically, landlords whose properties have fewer than five violations per unit qualify for a six-year inspection cycle instead of the three-year cycle. In the first cycle of inspections, more than 90% of landlords qualified for the six-year cycle, meaning that the program’s second cycle of inspections, taking place from 2018 to 2020, requires substantially fewer inspections.

Currently, the 10% inspection rate applies uniformly to all property types. In response to questions from the commission, Code Enforcement Manager Brian Jimenez said that in his experience older rentals tend to have more violations than ones built recently, as those were built to current building and safety codes. He said that included older single-family homes that were split up into three or four apartments decades ago, before the city adopted building codes in the 1950s. As an extreme example, he noted an inspection last week that found 20 or 30 violations in an older rental unit after the parent of the tenant, who was visiting, called the city with concerns.

Commissioner Stuart Boley agreed with Ananda that multiple factors, such as age of the property, could be used to establish different inspection thresholds for different types of properties. However, Boley said that those aspects of the program should be based on data from the city’s inspection program, which he requested that city staff gather to inform subsequent discussions of the program.

“We need to have data to say this is where the problems are, this is where we’re going to spend scarce resources,” Boley said. “We don’t want to spend a lot of time and money inspecting units that don’t need to be inspected; we need to concentrate on the ones that do.”

Vice Mayor Brad Finkeldei also said the city should be inspecting more than 10% of a landlord’s properties and that other factors should be considered when setting that percentage. Finkeldei also expressed concerns that the program allows landlords or property owners to present a vacant unit for inspection — which could include a model unit that is never rented out — and that the same units can be presented for inspection year after year.

Commissioner Lisa Larsen, who said she has some rental properties, said that the number of properties inspected was the weakest aspect of the program and that the small sampling size doesn’t seem to be adequate. The topic was before the commission at the request of Commissioner Courtney Shipley, who manages one rental property in Lawrence, and requested that the city reassess the program out of concern it does not do enough to protect tenants and ensure the safety of rentals in the city.

Jimenez said the 10% inspection rate and the potential for a six-year inspection cycle were two aspects that resulted in the program being “watered down.” In response to commission questions, he explained that the potential for the six-year cycle was an idea that came from landlords and property owners and part of a compromise when the city was setting up the program. He said that the five violations are only tallied against a list of 27 specific violations enumerated by the rental inspection program, as opposed to the city’s broader property maintenance code.

Other aspects of the program commissioners will discuss are whether the fees for inspection are appropriate; whether there should continue to be two separate violation standards; and whether the three-year inspection cycle and incentive aspect of the program should be changed. Commissioners all expressed interest in reassessing those aspects of the program, and the topic will come back to the commission for further discussion at a later date.


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