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Kansas City Housing Advocates To Start Petition For Rental Inspections

Barbara Shelly
KCUR 89.3

The recent refusal of a Kansas City Council committee to move forward with a plan to focus on health and safety concerns in rental housing may not be the last word on the contentious matter.

Advocates for tenants and low-income Kansas Citians are drawing up a strategy to collect signatures for an initiative petition that, if successful, would compel the city council to put the question of a rental inspection fee to voters.

Should they succeed, Kansas City could end up with a tougher and more expensive rental inspection program than the one the council’s Housing Committee rejected last month.

A third of the city’s housing units are rental. While most of them are safe and well-managed, city staffers and community-based groups receive a steady stream of complaints about lead paint, mold, rodents, leaks, unsecured windows and other dangerous conditions. But options for helping tenants are limited.

A number of cities, including Kansas City, Kansas, Independence and St. Louis, operate rental inspection programs funded by fees from landlords. But an attempt by city health officials and Councilman Scott Wagner to start up a program here ran into a wall last month. Members of the council’s Housing Committee worried that the proposal would cost too much, would be difficult to enforce and might detract from a broader solution to Kansas City’s shortage of low-income housing. They voted to hold Wagner’s proposal indefinitely.

The chilly reception didn’t sit well with advocates for low-income tenants, who watched the committee conduct two lengthy meetings on the issue.

“There was not one single comment made by anyone on the committee acknowledging that Kansas City has a problem,” said Colleen Hernandez, a consultant for affordable housing programs. “It was stunning to me. I was really disgusted.”

Hernandez was one of a group that gathered last week at the downtown offices of the Mid-America Regional Council to talk about moving forward with a rental inspection program. The meeting was a regularly scheduled session of the Regional Equity Network, which examines policies and planning decisions from a social fairness perspective. It included representatives from MORE2, Westside Housing Organization, Ivanhoe Neighborhood Association and Communities Creating Opportunity.

Also in attendance was Wagner, who represents the 1st council district at-large. He said he remained committed to helping the city gain leverage to improve conditions in rental housing.

“If this group chooses to take action, I’m wholeheartedly in support of it,” Wagner said. “If you want the council to take another crack at it, I’m wholeheartedly in support of that, too.”

The group postponed a final decision on an initiative petition drive until mid October, but planning for such an effort is already underway. Among other steps, Michael Duffy, managing attorney for Legal Aid of Western Missouri, is working on petition language.

That language could look different from the measure the city council considered. Wagner’s ordinance was the product of months of negotiations with landlord groups. It would have asked voters to assess from landlords an annual $25 fee for each rental property, with higher reinspection fees levied if an inspector found problems in a unit. Inspections would have been prompted by complaints.

Advocates are talking about proposing something stricter — perhaps a fee for each unit, rather than each property; or inspections at regular intervals even if no complaints are received.

Under the city Charter, petition drives are linked to voter turnout at the most recent mayoral election. Because turnout was low in 2015, organizers would need only about 1,700 signatures to place a question on the ballot. The city council would have to authorize a measure for the April ballot in January.

Lora McDonald, executive director of MORE2, told organizers that a petition drive would provide an opportunity to build relationships in the community to tackle other housing problems — such as a shortage of low-cost apartments and Jackson County’s high rate of evictions.

Landlord groups, meanwhile, aren’t resting easy, either.

“Our focus now will shift to state level legislation to prohibit mandatory interior inspections of rental properties,” Landlords Inc. reported on its Facebook page. “We'll work with other groups to determine the best way to direct our resources and let you know what you can do to help.”

A bill to preempt cities from passing laws requiring rental inspection fees moved in the Missouri legislature last year but wasn’t passed into law. It is likely to resurface when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

Barbara Shelly is a freelance contributor for KCUR 89.3. You can reach her at bshellykc@gmail.com.

Barbara Shelly is a freelance reporter and editor based in Kansas City, Missouri.
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