Driving through Johnson County you sometimes see it: a picture perfect home next to a house with peeling paint, an overgrown lawn and perhaps an inoperable car or two.
Statistically speaking, there’s a good chance the second house is a rental home.
Single-family rental homes have twice as many code infractions as non-rental homes, according to findings in Mission’s housing inventory.
Mission is one of many Johnson County cities using a rental inspection program to gain leverage with landlords and enforce property maintenance codes. Many cities require landlords to register rental property and have exterior inspections.
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But some go further with interior inspections. The most recent city tackling the issue is Roeland Park.
Roeland Park is considering expanding its current licensing program to include interior inspections of rental property. Currently the city inspects only the exterior.
If the city approves interior inspections, it would join cities such as Merriam, which conducts mandatory interior inspections of single-family rental homes and an annual percentage of all apartments.
Both Mission and Merriam have reported significant improvement in rental property condition since starting to include interior inspections to some extent in their rental programs. In Mission, inspection failure rates dropped from 48 percent the first year to 16 percent in just six years.
All three cities are members of the First Suburbs Coalition of the Mid-America Regional Council, which promotes sustainable communities and fights blight.
Many other First Suburbs Coalition members have rental licensing agreements, including Kansas City, Kan., which enforces specific maintenance standards and revokes licenses if landlords don’t comply.
Roeland Park began studying the issue this year. At a recent Committee of the Whole meeting, representatives from Mission and Merriam shared information on their rental inspection programs.
David Easley, Merriam community development director, said the Merriam City Council adopted an ordinance in 1996 requiring mandatory inspections of rental properties. The city inspects the interior of all single-family rental homes and approximately 5 percent of apartments.
Mandatory interior inspections are performed every two years and regular drive-by inspections ensure code compliance, he said. Additional inspections can occur if requested by the tenant, landlord or other interested party.
“We met with a lot of resistance from landlords when it was first put in place,” he said. “Our program has been very successful, but you need the complete support of the city council to make it happen.”
A full-time codes inspector oversees Merriam’s rental inspection program. An $85 rental licensing fee is due annually, which helps pay for the program, he said. “We have more than 327 single-family home rentals as well as 1,600 rental units,” he said. “Inspecting them all is a full-time job,” he said.
Martin Rivarola, Mission community development director, said a task force was appointed in 2007 to address concerns regarding the condition of rental housing. The task force was comprised of tenants, landlords, residents and elected officials.
“The task force met for a number of months,” Rivarola said. “It was contentious and controversial.”
Rivarola said at the start of the process some landlords questioned the legality of the program.
Ultimately, the task force recommended mandatory inspections of both single-family homes and apartments. Following additional resistance, the city adopted a compromise plan to require mandatory inspections of 5 percent of all apartment units annually and interior inspections of single-family homes only when requested by tenants and when a single-family home has three or more exterior code violations.
Exteriors of Mission’s single-family rental homes are inspected as part of the city’s overall codes enforcement effort, which includes regular drive-by inspections.
Mission has 347 single-family rental homes and 19 apartment complexes with nearly 2,400 total units. Since starting the program the number of inspections has increased annually, Rivarola said.
“Not only are we seeing much improved compliance with codes by landlords, we’re also seeing an increase in tenant-requested inspections,” Rivarola said. “We’re still debating initiating mandatory (interior) inspections of single-family rental properties, but we’re not there yet.”
Rivarola said Mission contracts with Johnson County Planning and Codes to perform the inspections. The program pays for itself. The base license fee covers the cost of one inspection. If additional inspections are required, the rental property owner pays the cost.
Both cities said educating both landlords and tenants has helped their programs succeed.
Rosalind Johnson, Mission neighborhood services coordinator, said compiling a rental inspection manual to be used by both apartment complex managers and owners of single-family rental homes has helped improve compliance rates.
In Fairway, exterior inspections are performed on an annual basis with the renewal of the rental registration and interior inspections are performed if requested by tenants.
Prairie Village currently doesn’t inspect the interiors of rental single-family homes.
“We’re not there yet,” Prairie Village City Administrator Quinn Bennion said. “We have more than 800 rental homes licensed with the city. We verify that they are registered and perform exterior inspections for code violations once annually.”
Overland Park’s rental property inspections are complaint-driven. The city conducts an exterior inspection of any property, rental or not, if there are reported property code violations. There is no annual inspection of rental property.
Olathe’s rental inspection program includes both complaint-driven and apparent violation inspections. Both exterior and interior inspections are conducted if requested by an occupant.
Lenexa has a residential rental licensing program that includes a biannual exterior inspections. Inspections are generally conducted in the spring by the city’s community standards staff.
Larry Baer, legal counsel for the League of Kansas Municipalities, said the league doesn’t have a policy on rental inspections.
“They are neither encouraged or discouraged and there is no model ordinance available,” he said. “Each city is on their own to decide how to handle that issue.”
The Roeland Park City Council agreed last year to examine surrounding cities rental inspection programs as a council goal. Councilwoman Becky Fast provided Roeland Park with information on rental housing inspections and licensing programs in nearby cities earlier this year.
Roeland Park has been discussing whether to implement a comprehensive rental housing licensing and inspection program involving the approximately 280 single-family and 400 multi-family units in the city.
The estimated amount of time it would take to perform interior inspections would be 388 hours for apartments and 630 for single-family homes. On average, apartments would take 45 minutes for an initial inspection and a half-hour for a second inspection. Homes would take 1.75 hours for an initial inspection and an hour for a second inspection.
Roeland Park also is considering increased outreach and education efforts to property owners of single-family rental housing to increase awareness the city’s current regulations. A small pilot program could be implemented first to assess resource needs before implementing the program.
Fast said interior inspections could help protect tenants who live in homes that are not taken care of by rental property owners. She said the city could address health and safety issues, such as sewer backup, electrical problems or other safety-related issues.
Currently, Roeland Park tenants can request an inspection if health and safety is at risk, but this is not stipulated in the city code and has been done on a limited basis.