Government & Politics

Fee to help fund KC rental inspection program won’t be on ballot

Kansas City health officials urged support Wednesday for a rental permit fee to go on the November ballot, but the measure failed to pass out of a council committee.
Kansas City health officials urged support Wednesday for a rental permit fee to go on the November ballot, but the measure failed to pass out of a council committee. The Star

An effort to fund a new rental housing inspection program in Kansas City stalled Wednesday at City Hall.

The city council’s Housing Committee voted 4-1 not to advance a ballot measure for the program. That ballot measure needed city council approval by Thursday to get on the November ballot, so it cannot now meet that deadline.

Councilman Scott Wagner had sponsored proposed ballot language calling for a $25 annual permit fee per rental parcel.

The fee would help create a $1.3 million fund for a complaint-driven rental inspection program. Health officials said they get many complaints from tenants about unsanitary and unhealthy conditions but are currently unable to address those unless they are life-threatening.

They dubbed their plan the “Healthy Homes Inspection Program” and said it would establish minimum health and safety standards, to help nearly 24,000 Kansas Citians who may be threatened with unsafe rental housing.

“People will still call the city asking for a response, and we will not respond,” Wagner lamented after the committee vote, saying he’s been working with the Health Department on this proposal for nearly four months, including many conversations with landlords that modified the plan from an earlier, more expensive proposal.

He had hoped to get voter approval at the Nov. 7 ballot. Wagner said the timing is urgent, because the Missouri legislature may try to prohibit such a fee and inspection program in its 2018 session.

The Housing Committee heard five hours of testimony on the proposal over the past two weeks, with neighborhood leaders and health and tenant advocates strongly supporting it. But rental property owners and landlord advocates argued it was vague and punitive to the vast majority of responsible owners without really addressing the bad actors.

On Wednesday, Wagner flew in Ruth Ann Norton, president of the Baltimore-based Green and Healthy Homes Initiative. She said well over 50 cities have adopted such programs, and she considered Kansas City’s proposal to be practical and implementable, while providing for a platform for strong education of tenants about their rights.

“There’s nothing here that appears to be onerous,” Norton said. “No one who is accountable suffers from good standards.”

She said fears of housing abandonment or increased rents have not been borne out in other cities with similar programs.

But Councilwoman Teresa Loar, a Housing Committee member, worried about how well Kansas City would enforce these new standards, especially with so many absentee landlords who are hard to find.

Committee members also worried about setting up another layer of health department bureaucracy, and said the city needs a more wholistic approach to providing quality affordable housing.

Loar and committee members Alissia Canady, Quinton Lucas and Dan Fowler voted to hold the ballot measure for more discussion, although they acknowledged that means it can’t get on the November ballot. Wagner was the only committee member who did not support the delay.

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley