A sweep of bug spray was supposed to blunt Sara Bay’s cockroach problem, but all it did was rile up a swarm that came pouring up from the basement walls.
The 21-year-old pregnant woman had been in her new rental house in Kansas City less than a week, she said, and health hazards she hadn’t known to look for were bursting on her like shrapnel.
Mold. Mice feces. Poor electrical wiring. These are the things her grandmother, Laura De Rosa, says she found when she rushed to the house after taking Bay’s hysterical phone call earlier this spring.
To protect neighborhoods from such health hazards, Kansas City’s Health Department wants to begin regular inspections of rental properties — funded by fees on landlords.
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The city is working on a draft ordinance that could put the question before voters in November. The ordinance proposes a fee starting at $90 for a single-family home that would be good for three years.
Independence has enacted a new inspections ordinance, also funded by fees, that takes effect Thursday.
Proposals for inspection programs percolating in these and other cities are spurring heavy debate.
It’s “governmental arrogance,” said Robert Wise, a Kansas City attorney who represents landlords.
Wise said fees would come down on good landlords in the pursuit of the “nuisance houses” that cities have other ways to catch. Landlords also see potential constitutional violations of tenants’ rights against unreasonable search and seizure.
This spring in the Missouri legislature, House Bill 1189, which would prohibit cities from any periodic interior inspections of rental property without the tenant’s consent, failed to make it through the session.
Landlords expect to see another shot in 2018.
“I have to ask why the city would want to make life tougher on the landlord,” Kim Tucker, the executive director of the Mid-America Association of Real Estate Investors, wrote on the organization’s blog, “when they want anyone and everyone to buy and fix up their vacant rental properties.”
City officials drafting Kansas City’s ordinance recognize that an inspection process will need to strike an effective balance, said Kansas City Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner.
“We don’t want to be overly intrusive,” Wagner said. “But we want to assure living conditions are safe without undue burden to landlords.”
The ordinance remains in flux and hasn’t gone before the City Council yet. Ultimately, voters would decide if an inspection program happens in Kansas City.
Some of the issues inspectors might be looking for would be chipping or flaking lead-based paint, or dangerous mold or exposed wiring, Wagner said.
“We’re looking for a minimum level of safety for rental properties throughout the city,” he said.
The conditions that De Rosa discovered in her granddaughter’s rental home may be extreme, but situations like those do exist, said De Rosa, who went to the Center for Conflict Resolution in Kansas City to try to get help.
“Oh my God,” De Rosa said, recalling her reaction after seeing the house. “I called the landlord-tenant court. I called the Health Department.” The city’s code enforcement officer who came to the house said the city already was investigating a case against the property.
The vulnerability Bay described cuts both ways in the debate over inspections and fees on landlords.
She was desperate to find a cheaper space, she said, when roommates in a shared house dispersed, leaving her having to pay the whole $800 rent. She rushed into a deal for the $650 rental home she found on Craigslist because it was something available she could afford.
Then, rather than pursue her complaint in court, she took a partial refund of her rent and downpayment from her new landlord because she didn’t think she could wait through a legal process that might not rule in her favor.
Landlords opposing the fees and inspections say it would add costs that they would have to add to rents, which would hurt renters like Bay who often are already paying more than they can afford.
But proponents of inspections say the powers landlords hold over many low- and middle-income tenants inhibits many from complaining of unsafe conditions for fear of eviction. And some residents simply don’t know they can complain to their health department.
“What cities have found is that residents won’t make those complaints,” said Richard Sheets, deputy director of the Missouri Municipal League in Jefferson City.
Many bigger cities are beginning to explore regular rental inspections, he said, because “they’re trying to get a handle on substandard housing.”
Hazards in one house can affect not just the health and safety of the tenants but the surrounding neighborhood, he said. Vermin and insects breed and spread, he said. “And it is the role of municipalities to protect health and safety.”
Independence is prepared to begin inspections Thursday at a cost of $50 per inspection to landlords every two years. The city has accumulated a list of approved private inspectors landlords can choose from to do the inspections.
Independence’s City Council has been wrangling over its ordinance since the fall, making adjustments, including reducing the number of items the ordinance requires to be covered in inspections.
“There has been a lot of work, a lot of discussion,” Independence Mayor Eileen Weir said. At public hearings, almost everyone who came to speak were landlords opposing it. But Weir said she and council members have long been hearing from residents and neighborhood groups about problem properties.
“For every one of us on the council,” Weir said, “this is an issue they tell us they are concerned about.”
While landlords don’t want the ordinance and fees, Kansas City properties owner Stephen Summers says tenants won’t want them, either.
He stood recently on a Northeast Kansas City block with Brian Winberry, each of them landlords with 30 to 40 properties each. A tidy home on the corner of the block was one of Summers’ first properties that he bought 30 years ago.
These neighborhoods just north of Truman Road thrived when Sears and Montgomery Ward were strong, Winberry said, “but now it’s a low-income area, and this is what they (the residents) can afford.”
Winberry’s already including language in leases, he said, that says any city inspection fees that arise would be added to the rent.
“There is a tremendous amount of low-income housing in Kansas City,” Summers said. The fees and repair costs brought on by inspections is bound to raise rents, he said, “and displace a huge number of people.”
All of this will be part of the discussions going forward, Wagner said. The Health Department wants to be able to effectively protect people and neighborhoods, he said. But the public and the City Council will get a chance to be heard on the ordinance.
“That,” Wagner said, “is why it has ‘DRAFT’ written all over it.”