Editorial: How to make Kansas City rental housing safer

If Kansas City voters approve the Healthy Homes Inspection Program, the city will have tools to inspect rental units.
If Kansas City voters approve the Healthy Homes Inspection Program, the city will have tools to inspect rental units.

Kansas City must move closer to a needed program for supervising the safety of rental housing in the community.

The City Council is trying to decide if it wants to place the Healthy Homes Inspection Program on the November ballot. If voters approve the measure, the city will have tools to inspect potentially substandard rental units that threaten the health of tenants.

Council members should put the proposal on the ballot. Voters should approve it.

Under the plan, landlords would be charged an annual fee, starting at $25 and rising with inflation. The city would use the money to hire inspectors, who would respond to complaints about unhealthy conditions, including problems with utilities, ventilation, heating and maintenance.

The city’s health director would develop rules and standards for landlords and tenants to follow.

The city would not become involved in landlord-tenant disputes over unpaid rent or other contractual disagreements. A landlord would not be allowed to evict a tenant simply because he or she filed a complaint about safety conditions.

Landlords would be given time to fix substandard conditions — immediately if the problem is life-threatening and over a longer time frame for lesser violations. There are escalating penalties and fees for violators, including fines and jail time.

All are important steps.

By one estimate offered Wednesday, nearly 24,000 Kansas Citians may be threatened by unsafe rental housing. Yet the city has no specific regulatory scheme to ensure renters live in homes that meet minimum health standards.

The city can order tenants out of homes if they discover a life-threatening condition, and there are housing codes that must be followed. But the proposed ordinance would give the Health Department real authority to set clear rules for landlords and to punish them for failure to comply.

Landlords squawked Wednesday, claiming some tenants would lose their homes. Some blamed tenants for safety problems.

Some council members said Wednesday the proposal was too broad or would create an unneeded bureaucracy.

But the rules do not appear to be onerous, and the $25 fee is reasonable. For landlords who rent substandard properties, the penalties are proper.

No one in Kansas City should live in dangerous, substandard rental housing, and the proposed ordinance has enough teeth to make that less likely.

The City Council and the voters have a chance this fall to make the community more livable for everyone. They should take that step by endorsing the Healthy Homes program.