A proposed "Healthy Homes" program requiring city inspection of rental housing will be on the Aug. 7 ballot under City Council action taken Thursday.
The council was required by law to approve placement on the ballot after housing activists collected more than the required 1,708 valid signatures. The measure would empower health department inspectors to respond to tenant complaints of unsanitary or life-threatening conditions.
The new system would be financed by a schedule of fees charged to landlords: $20 for each unit when initially applying for a rental permit, then $20 per unit annually. Problems that go uncorrected after inspectors respond to a complaint would trigger a $150 re-inspection fee for the first unit, and $100 for each additional unit.
An estimated 43 percent of the city's population lives in rental apartments or homes. Activists contend that about 10 percent of that population lives in substandard conditions.
At least three dozen other cities comparable in size to Kansas City enforce a set of minimum standards for leased housing, according to health department officials. Six surrounding localities — Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, Overland Park, Leawood, Mission and Independence — have rental inspection programs on the books.
"This is ripe to be on the ballot," said Lora McDonald, executive director of MORE2 (Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity), one of the community groups behind the petition campaign, which netted a total of 2,004 signatures.
An ordinance establishing rental standards was introduced last summer by Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner but stalled in committee, at least in part because of protests from the real estate industry. Landlord groups are expected to contest the ballot question.
Before taking the pro forma action Thursday, a couple of council members said the costs of the new regulatory regime could well be passed on to already stretched tenants.
"There are issues that will have unintended consequences," said Councilwoman Alyssia Canady.
"We have 330,000 rental units in this city. Who's going to enforce this?" asked Councilwoman Teresa Loar.
McDonald said that most landlords are responsible and that the system would focus on a small but persistent minority — perhaps 10 percent — who are bad actors.
Mayor Sly James said he understood the council members' concerns and that the city was likely in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" position. But the squalid conditions in which some tenants live demands some kind of action.
"We have to do something in those situations," James said. "I get it. I really do."