A proposal for a rental housing inspection program, which stalled in a Kansas City Council committee this summer, is now the focus of a petition signature drive by activists who hope to place it on the April ballot.
The “Healthy Homes” measure, originally sponsored by Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner, would be funded by charging an annual $25 permit fee to landlords.
The money would pay for Health Department inspectors to respond to tenant complaints of unsanitary or hazardous conditions. Problems that went uncorrected would trigger a $150 re-inspection fee for landlords plus $100 for re-inspection of any additional units that needed repair.
The Kansas City Regional Equity Network, a coalition of groups active in social and economic justice issues, plans to gather the required 1,708 signatures of registered voters by the end of the year. The number of signatures is determined by a percentage of the total votes cast in the last mayoral election.
“Not only is this warranted, it’s absolutely necessary if we’re going to have an equitable housing situation in this community,” said Lora McDonald, executive director of MORE2 (Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity), one of the groups active in the petition campaign. McDonald has a personal connection to the issue. She said it took her six months to get mold removed from her Northland rental apartment.
McDonald, who called herself “an average Kansas Citian,” said if it took her so long to get the problem fixed, “it’s really impacting people who have less income and power.”
About 43 percent of the city’s population lives in rental apartments or homes. Three-dozen other cities roughly Kansas City’s size have some form of program to enforce minimum standards of habitability for leased housing, according to health department officials. Six surrounding jurisdictions — Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City Kansas,, Overland Park, Leawood, Mission and Independence — have passed rental inspection ordinances.
If the proposal makes it to the April ballot, it will almost certainly trigger a vigorous campaign by landlords and other real estate interests. Their opposition helped keep the ordinance bottled up in committee this summer. They said the plan places an undue burden on law-abiding landlords in an attempt to police a small number of bad operators.
“We’re already getting organized for it,” said Steve Vogel, president of the Missouri Property Owners Association, referring to a possible campaign.
If activists gather the number of qualifying signatures, the council must the place ordinance on the ballot as written or amend it with the agreement of petitioners. It could also pass the measure and make an election unnecessary. Wagner said he was not directly involved in the petition effort but would work for council passage if activists were successful.
Wagner said his proposal grew out of concern from city health officials and housing advocates about conditions they encountered in some of the city’s 65,000 rental units. These include mold, rat droppings, asbestos, sewage back up and structural problems.
The health department already has the power to shutter housing that poses severe hazards. Existing property maintenance codes can enforce certain standards of upkeep. But officials say they lack the capacity to hold landlords to clear account for poor conditions, and tenants can be reluctant to complain. The measure includes prohibitions against landlord reprisals.
Wagner, a candidate for mayor in 2019, said he had hoped to advance the Healthy Homes plan as a ballot measure that would have gone to voters this past Nov. 7. He was pressing for a spot on the November ballot, he said, because of concerns that the state legislature would move to preempt localities to establishing fee-based rental inspection programs. The deadline for November ballot language was August 24.
But he encountered stiff resistance during nearly five hours of council housing committee hearings on August 16 and 23. Many landlords said they had not been consulted in advance by Wagner, who responded that he’d spent nearly six months meeting with industry representatives.
The committee chairman, Councilman Quinton Lucas, said he was not consulted by Wagner. Councilwoman Alissia Canady, co-chair of the city’s Health Commission, which oversees the activities of the Health Department, said that panel should also review the proposal.
Housing committee members said the ordinance was overly broad and too complicated to push through the legislative process on such a tight timetable. Lucas expressed concerns about the constitutionality of inspectors entering homes.
The most outspoken critic was Canady, who said the inspection system could produce unintended consequences like higher rents and shrinkage of the city’s already inadequate inventory of affordable housing. Landlords could shutter properties rather than make repairs, and with no funding for alternative housing to support tenants who have been turned out, homelessness could increase.
Canady called the ordinance “a half approach” that did nothing to address the underlying issues that create the problem.
“People in these situations have bigger issues that need to be addressed,” she said, mentioning prior criminal convictions and poor credit.
She also accused McDonald of “coming from a place of privilege” by not considering the potential impact on the poor and disadvantage before launching the petition effort.
“She used her position to rally troops around this issue,” Canady said.
McDonald vehemently disputed Canady’s claim, saying any issue her organization takes on is a consensus decision. It also reflected many hours of community discussion about tenant issues in partnership with the Mid-America Regional Council.
“Privilege is better defined as someone who does NOT have to live with mold in her $800 a month apartment for six months without anyone even attempting to remediate it,” McDonald said in a text message. “It’s probably better defined as someone being able to get it fixed with phone call or two. THAT would be privilege.”
Canady said McDonald could have gotten timely attention to the mold problem if she had called the appropriate neighborhood code inspectors.