Standing sewage, a house with no bathroom: Healthy Homes program was desperately needed

‘Cockroaches rained down’ during inspection of Northland apartment

City officials have moved families out of one substandard apartment building in the Northland following a Healthy Homes inspection. Englewood Apartments has been on the city’s radar for issues, including mold and roaches.
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City officials have moved families out of one substandard apartment building in the Northland following a Healthy Homes inspection. Englewood Apartments has been on the city’s radar for issues, including mold and roaches.

There was the asthma/COPD sufferer whose apartment was found to be directly above a basement with four feet of standing sewage. There was the house with no kitchen sink or counter. There was the apartment complex with no working air conditioners in July.

Kansas City’s “Healthy Homes” rental inspection program has fielded these and nearly a thousand other complaints in its first year. But perhaps none of the 943 calls for help received as of Aug. 28 is more scandalous than this one:

An older couple, with the woman on a walker, had rented a house on the internet only to discover it had no bathroom. Whatsoever.

To the overly accepting couple’s demure, unassuming delight, there was a welcoming church across the street. To the horror of any reasonable observer, they had to make use of its facilities day and night in all kinds of weather last winter. They had no choice.

Or so they thought.

This is precisely why voters created the Healthy Homes rental inspection program in August 2018. A year later, there is absolutely no question it is a success and is making life better for untold numbers of tenants. A little more than a week ago, officials emptied out an Englewood Apartments building in the Northland where they encountered caved-in ceilings, mold, damp carpets, a floor with backed-up sewage and roaches cascading down from an open door.

The remarkable thing is that landlords, many of whom bitterly opposed the program’s creation, have been instrumental in Healthy Homes’ early success — first by registering their properties. The Health Department’s goal was to have 80% of the city’s rental properties registered within three years. It already has about 93% of the properties registered.

In addition, there have been zero instances in which a landlord has refused or failed to correct health violations.

Ultimately, because it is completely complaint-driven, the success of the Healthy Homes program lies with tenants. They’ve got to know about it, they’ve got to trust it and they can’t be allowed to abuse it. Naser Jouhari, senior public health manager for the city, says Healthy Homes won’t take sides and won’t get involved in rent disputes, evictions or lawsuits between tenants and landlords. And in cases where problems have been caused by the tenants themselves, Jouhari says the city has provided education to the tenants and, in some cases, help to landlords in building a case for eviction.

Those being regulated rarely welcome it — though the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development did when the Kansas City Council voted unanimously to include federal housing in the city’s inspection program. Still, Jouhari says Healthy Homes only seeks to eliminate imminent health threats and chronic hazards. “We’re not trying to convert all these rental properties into lofts,” he says. “We just want the minimum basic health and safety standards.”

Despite a focus on just those basics, of 336 actual Healthy Homes inspections in the past year, only 23 passed without violations. Yet, to the landlords’ credit, not one has had to be threatened with suspension.

Not everyone is pleased. Landlord Henry Lyons, who showed a clean-smelling, more-than-livable rented house to The Star Thursday, fiercely opposes the added regulatory burdens on good landlords, adding that many — including him — are selling properties as a result. He put us in touch with several of them. Perhaps, Jouhari counters, but he notes other investors are also calling his office to get addresses of “problematic” properties to buy and fix up.

Moreover, Jouhari says, the point is to combat landlords such as one who was incredulous that he needed to have a kitchen sink in his rental. “If you expect to rent a unit in this city with no running water, with no functioning bathroom, or with no kitchen sink,” Jouhari said, “I don’t think I want you in business in this city.”

That good landlords get caught up in the regulatory and emotional backlash against bad ones may not be fair, but good people pay all kinds of taxes and fees to mitigate the actions of bad ones. They inspect all restaurants, for instance, even the most elegant. It’s a cost of doing business — in this case, just a $20-a-year-per-rental registration cost.

As he also did with a Star columnist back in 2007, Lyons points out that it’s not right to crack down on landlords while allowing owner-occupied homes and even city property to be run-down and overgrown next door. Agreed. More needs to be done on those fronts as well.

But tenants are undeniably more at the mercy of others. And Healthy Homes’ track record in its first year is ironclad proof the program was desperately needed.