A letter sent last week to residents of four apartment complexes in Kansas City illustrates the losing battle many low-income renters are fighting with absentee property owners.
The demand from San Francisco-based Landmark Realty for renters to pay a one-time fee of $20 to cover the cost of a city-mandated inspection clearly violated city ordinance. Company officials rescinded the letter after the Kansas City Health Department sent notice that Landmark had breached the terms of the city’s rental inspection program.
Under the voter-approved Healthy Homes initiative, landlords must pay a $20 per rental unit annual inspection fee, and they are prohibited from dumping the cost onto their tenants.
Landmark clearly ignored the edict. Company officials claimed ignorance, suggesting they were unaware of the measure. Regional Property Manager Jonathan Marcus did not reply to several messages seeking comment.
“No way this could be legal was my first thought,” a resident of one Landmark-owned apartment complex told The Star last week. “But I wasn’t very surprised. When you live in a place that is run by (out–of-town owners), this is what they do.”
Kansas City officials must to do a better job of protecting low-income residents’ rights.
“Landmark is among many other corporate, out-of-state landlords that exploit local tenants,” said Tara Raghuveer, founder of the tenants’ rights group KC Tenants. “They aren’t accountable to their tenants, their neighbors or to the city. We must end the plague of out-of-state real estate speculation in Kansas City.”
Enforcement must be ramped up. Landlords who violate the policy must be held accountable. Fines and revocation of permits should be imposed as permitted by the Healthy Homes ordinance.
“If the city receives credible evidence that landlords are raising rent specifically to address a modest fee meant to ensure that rental housing is safe for tenants, we will be as aggressive to the fullest extent of the law to make sure that those landlords are held accountable,” Kansas City Manager Troy Schulte said.
Kansas City has an affordable housing problem. The rental inspection program was one small step toward ensuring that low-income residents have clean and safe housing options. But Landmark’s decision to saddle residents with the cost undercuts the aim of the ordinance and is grossly unfair.
A $20 fee may seem inconsequential to some, but that could be the difference between eating or paying a utility bill for others. Simply having the ordinance on the books isn’t enough. Shrewd property owners can figure out a way to skirt the law — and obviously, they’re already working on it.
“These small little things really set people back,” said Kansas City Councilman Quinton Lucas, the chairman of the housing committee.
Revenue generated from inspection fees is supposed to be spent on relocation costs for tenants who need to be removed from unhealthy conditions. A portion should be used to set up an emergency assistance fund for low-income renters.
“The money is there,” Lucas said. “We need to evaluate that as an option. I think the city can step up and find a way to do it.”
The abundance of absentee property owners in Kansas City can make life unnecessarily difficult for some low-income renters. City officials must close any loopholes that could allow property owners to unfairly add more financial burdens to residents already struggling to make ends meet.