Government & Politics

Will voters beef up KC’s rental inspections? One mom had mold issues, felt ‘helpless’

By the time Anesa Richardson moved out, this is what she was getting for her $489 a month at the Englewood Apartments on Northwest Waukomis Drive: mold in the closets, an 8-year-old son with worsening asthma and a collapsed bathroom ceiling.

“We shouldn’t have to live like this,” said Richardson, 31, a business student at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg. She stayed for six years because she liked the Park Hill School District.

“No matter how many times you complain you get ignored. Nothing gets done at all. Ever,” she said. “It makes you feel helpless.”

The vast majority of the city’s renters don’t endure such conditions. But more than 23,000 Kansas City tenants have “one or more severe housing conditions,” according to city data. These can include lack of complete kitchens, inadequate plumbing and serious overcrowding. In some low-income neighborhoods, as many as 42 percent of renters said they had unresolved maintenance issues.

Housing advocates and public health officials say the numbers underscore the urgency of the Healthy Homes initiative, which is Question One on the Aug. 7 ballot.

Healthy Homes would expand the Health Department’s ability to look inside some of the city’s estimated 109,000 rental units for serious threats to tenants. These include black mold and cockroaches — major sources of childhood asthma.

Currently, the city’s team of property code inspectors is focused mostly on external issues: trash, peeling paint, high grass, vacant houses. They’re also overloaded as it is, carrying hundreds of active cases.

“Do people who vote in Kansas City care about conditions in rental housing? Do you care if people live in homes with mold and sewage?”asked Lora McDonald, executive director of the Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity (MORE2), which is leading the campaign for Question 1.

The proposal is being vigorously contested by the rental industry, which contends it will penalize all landlords.

“There are some really good landlords that this bill would require to pay the city so it can investigate other landlords who aren’t good,” said Bob Jenkins, a rental property owner and manager. “There are other means with which you could pay for this. You guys continue to think landlords are some slush fund.”

As Aug. 7 approaches, forces on both sides of the issue are mobilizing.

“Having a leaky roof is way better than having no roof,” Kim Tucker, executive director of the Mid-America Association of Real Estate Investors (MAREI), said in a recent email.

That drew a sharp response from longtime affordable housing activist Colleen Hernandez.

“So does that mean it’s okay to sell a car with defective brakes? Serve food which is unsanitary or let children go to school who have not been immunized?” she asked. “This attitude is troubling. It’s basically, ‘You should be thankful for what you get.’ This isn’t charity. Renters are paying $8,000 to $10,000 (annually) and should have a safe, habitable place for what they pay.”

How will Healthy Homes work?

Bad Apartments me 072718 rs 010f
Anesa Richardson was forced to move out of the Englewood Apartments on Northwest Waukomis Drive because of a mold problem that was playing havoc with her 8-year-old son’s asthma. “We shouldn’t have to live like this,” said Richardson, 31, a business student at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg. Rich Sugg

Anesa Richardson’s situation came to light as Health Department officials, accompanied by City Councilman Dan Fowler, responded to complaints from Englewood residents and visited several apartments over two days last week.

Police and and representatives of Englewood’s owner, Cleveland-based Millennia Housing Management, barred reporters from entering. But Fowler, whose 2nd District includes Englewood, said later that he was appalled by what he saw.

He said one apartment, where a woman was nursing an infant, had a wall covered with black mold. In another, the entire ceiling of a room had fallen, exposing what appeared to be mold.

“The sight and smell of the unlivable conditions nearly made me ill,” Fowler said in a letter to 2nd District residents Wednesday.

While the complex is part of the Section 8 housing program and technically under federal jurisdiction, he said he would be meeting with city officials “to see what our options are.”

A Millennia spokesman, Jeff Crossman, said Friday that Englewood was in poor condition when the company purchased the property in 2015 but that it passed a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development inspection this past spring.

A $10 million renovation was planned before Missouri halted its low-income housing tax credit program in late 2017, a key tool used by developers to finance affordable and workforce housing.

“We’ve been trying to find other ways to raise the capital,” Crossman said.

He said the problems Fowler described would be addressed immediately.

Under Healthy Homes, tenants would be able to file complaints with the Health Department, which would then respond with an inspection.

The program would be funded by landlords with a $20 per unit annual fee, due when they register their properties with the city. If problems are found during an initial visit, the landlord would pay $150 for a re-inspection to confirm that the issue has been addressed. A second re-inspection, if necessary, would cost $100.

The fees would then be used to hire more inspectors, who would also conduct a limited number of random, unannounced visits to properties that they suspect pose hazards.

Registration fees proposed in Question 1 would cost landlords about $1.60 per unit annually.

Some property owners flatly promise that they will sell to out-of-town investors if the program is imposed. The likely outcome, they said, will be a reduced supply of affordable — if not always carefully maintained — housing, squeezing out the very population the plan is intended to protect.

The debate over Question 1 is part of a broader discussion underway about rental housing in Kansas City. Tenants comprise 46 percent of the city’s population, according to census data, and include some of its most vulnerable low-income and immigrant residents.

Data assembled by researcher Tara Raghuveer shows that Jackson County is a virtual eviction factory, producing nearly 174,000 between 1999 and 2016. The numbers have driven discussion about possible reforms.

Last week, City Councilwoman Jolie Justus introduced an ordinance that would allow women who are victims of domestic violence or stalking to exit their leases without penalty.

Richardson is currently staying with a sister in Grandview until she can make other arrangements. Housing issues are hardest on children, like her son Jaron.

“He’s mad because he doesn’t have his own home anymore. He doesn’t have his own room anymore.”

‘A clear need’

While the idea is new to Kansas City, more than 60 U.S. cities require some form of interior rental inspection, including several metro area suburbs.

Research shows some systems are more effective than what’s proposed in Question 1.

A 2013 study by the University of Texas School of Law concluded that complaint-based inspection programs don’t work because many tenants, especially immigrants, are reluctant to reach out to authorities for help. By the time they do, their homes might be beyond repair, with dangerous problems festering.

Regardless of how the programs are organized, there is little evidence of the consequences predicted by property owners.

While median monthly rents across the country rose 15 percent between 2000 and 2016, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, there is no correlation between the increases and rental inspections.

Independence’s Rental Ready program, adopted in September 2016, requires all of the city’s 17,000 rental units to be inspected every two years for basic health and safety requirements. These include safely installed furnaces, proper sanitary sewage systems, working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and no exposed electrical wiring.

Landlords hire private inspectors from a city-approved list and the price is capped at $50. Property owners must also pay for a re-inspection, if required.

Rents have held steady. A two-bedroom apartment currently goes for an average of $800 a month, up two percent from last year and in line with inflation, according the Internet listing service RentCafé.

The region’s longest-standing rental inspection regime is operated by the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas.

From 1996 to 2016, it required interior inspections once every five years for single-family rental homes and every two years for apartment complexes. Dean Katerndahl, director of development when the program launched 22 years ago, said there was no mass sell-off or displacement of low-income tenants.

“We never saw any of that occur. All the landlords didn’t leave town or sell their property or anything like that,” Katerndahl said.

A new Kansas law, boosted by heavy support from landlords citing Fourth Amendment concerns, now requires tenant consent before authorities can inspect a home or apartment.

Officials can still respond to complaints. Landlords pay licensing fees of $32 per building and $23 for each individual unit. Property owners can’t rent units without licenses, and no licenses are issued until inspections are passed.

In 2017, Unified Government conducted 1,232 initial property inspections, with 1,035 showing problems that needed correction. Forty-five owners had licenses revoked for failure to make repairs or because their properties were considered unfit for human habitation.

“This data would indicate that there is a clear need for the program because of the high number of initial inspections that find violations,” Hernandez said.

The Dallas example

Property owners cite research, some of it industry-generated, linking the shortage of affordable housing to heavy-handed local government regulation.

But those studies focus mainly on issues like rent control, zoning restrictions and slow permit approvals — not basic efforts to protect health and safety.

Critics of Question 1 also point to an attempt by the city of Dallas to crack down on owners of single-family rental homes.

News reports last year said hundreds of low-income West Dallas residents faced the prospect of leaving their homes because of rising rents or sales by the landlord.

Bob Curry, director of special projects for Dallas’ department of code enforcement, said 20 to 30 families were displaced but quickly found other housing. Tenants ended up buying many of the homes.

He called the impact of the inspection program “kind of a straw man.”

Will it pass?

Healthy Homes started as an ordinance sponsored last summer by Mayor Pro Tem and mayoral candidate Scott Wagner.

The measure died in the City Council’s housing committee when real estate interests protested and two council members, Councilman Quinton Lucas, the committee chairman, and Alissia Canady raised questions about the plan’s potential effectiveness. Lucas and Canady are also mayoral candidates.

Lucas now says he supports Question 1. Canady calls it a partial remedy that doesn’t adequately deal with the scope of the city’s affordable housing issues.

Wagner helped launch the campaign for signatures to place the initiative on the ballot. It’s been part of his campaign pitch as he rides the circuit of neighborhood and homeowner groups.

“It was important then and it’s important now,” he said.

Turnouts for elections are historically light, so Question 1 is likely to be decided by two small groups of highly motivated voters.

MORE2 and allied organizations, bolstered by a $35,000 grant from Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City, are knocking on doors and phone banking. Hernandez is leading an effort to send personalized signed postcards to high-frequency voters in the southwest corridor.

A group of property owners, including MAREI, Landlords Inc. and Landlords of Eastern Jackson County, are supplying talking points to their memberships. A newly formed political committee, Housing for All, was registered with the Missouri Ethics Commission. Its July quarterly report shows a lone $1,000 contribution from developer Sam Alpert.

More donations are expected. Jenkins said the stakes are high.

“This thing is not going to be some sort of little nugget that everybody thinks won’t cost them,” he said. “It will cost them dearly.”

But at least one key figure in the rental industry, Ed Jaskina, who heads the Associated Landlords of Kansas City, predicted that Question 1 “will pass overwhelmingly.”

“The rest of the city has been convinced that landlords are evil,” he said.