Hutchinson building official Trent Maxwell recalls the city, years back, inspecting the home of a woman whose gas had been shut off for nearly a year.
“She was using one burner on the electric stove to heat water to bathe her little kids,” he said.
The woman finally got fed up and called city officials. She’d held off, she said, because her landlord threatened to land her in jail if she summoned inspectors. That wasn’t true. But she believed the threat.
“No one,” Maxwell said, “should have to live like that.”
Those kinds of situations, as well as a run of house fires, prompted Hutchinson city officials to pass a rental inspection program in 2015. Every rental in the city limits would have to be registered, and city inspectors would go through every rental property once every three years.
But landlords said the city overstepped, infringing on tenants’ right to privacy and holding landlords to a higher standard than homeowners.
Mary Marrow, an attorney at the Public Health Law Center, said it’s not a privacy issue.
“This is a business,” she said of housing rentals. “We have standards about what (are) acceptable living conditions.”
In 2016, though, the Kansas Legislature sided with landlords.
A law signed that year protected landlords from mandatory inspections of the inside of their rentals. It also blocked what’s commonly called “inclusionary zoning,” where a certain percentage of new development is set aside for below-market-rate housing.
“That pretty much cut us off at the knees,” said Steve Dechant, a Hutchinson city council member and landlord who supported the regulations.
For the state law’s supporters, though, Hutchinson still has the necessary tools to keep its tenants safe. The city’s still been inspecting rentals, but only from the outside. If inspectors want to get inside, they still can, with a warrant or written permission from the tenant.
Maxwell said the benefit of the law, though, is that landlords couldn’t blame their tenants if inspectors came sniffing around.
“It gave kind of a neutral way for the unit to be inspected,” Maxwell said. “The tenant was not going to be at fault.”
Tenants who call in a code violation are legally protected from retaliation by their landlords, said Luke Bell, who represented the Kansas Association of Realtors during the bill’s passage in 2016.
“These inspections are arguably being done in favor of the tenant,” he said. “So if the tenant doesn’t want the inspection, should they be forced to agree to it?”
Marrow, the attorney, said that overstates the city’s control. City inspectors give landlords a heads-up before coming over, and the landlords notify their tenants — they’re not knocking down doors with no warning.
“(Inspection policies are) about protection of renters,” said Marrow, “who, first of all, might not know that there’s a safety violation there, and may not be in a position to do anything about it if there is.”
Still, officials in some Kansas cities say even tenants who know there’s a problem, and that they’re protected from landlord retaliation, might be hesitant to summon inspectors. That could trigger condemnations, which means evictions, which means a rush to find another place for a similar price.
The inspections may have felt like government overreach to some. To others, restricting inspections and price controls at the state level feels like Topeka policymakers stepping on cities’ ability to work out what makes the most sense in their area.
“It’s good to have more tools, rather than less, to deal with whatever problems come up,” said Andrea Boyack, a law professor at Washburn University.
Boyack favors the inspection restrictions in the 2016 state law, which she said protects tenants’ privacy. But she has concerns about the part of the bill that stops local officials from insisting that developers include affordable units in their housing developments.
Kansas hasn’t seen skyrocketing rents in the same way as some other places, like the burgeoning tech hubs of San Francisco and Seattle. As housing there became more in-demand, and at least some people could pay sizeable rents, the market moved with them. Landlords charged what the market could bear.
In Reno County, home to Hutchinson, a minimum-wage worker would have to put in 62 hours a week to make a one-bedroom at fair market rent. That presumes they’re working regular hours every week, but many entry-level jobs have irregular hours.
That puts Reno County’s rental costs below the state as a whole, where workers have to earn $11.20 per hour to afford a one-bedroom apartment. Again, that assumes a full workweek every week, with no unpaid days off. Kansas’ two-bedroom average rent outstrips all its neighbors except Colorado, where Denver-area prices and ski resort towns drive up prices.
Blocking price controls leaves cities without a powerful, if often controversial, tool to make sure housing costs fall in line with earning power.
“You’re taking those tools off the table for local governments,” Boyack said.
But Bell said mandating that, for example, 30 percent of units rent at cheaper rates just means the cost gets passed on to everyone else.
“That developer or that apartment complex owner, they're going to have to make that up somewhere,” he said. “All it does is it raises the cost of housing for the other 70 percent to control the cost of housing for the 30 percent.”
He said developers might also just avoid projects entirely if building for below-market rents makes it harder for them to recoup investments. Landlords, too, might shy away from renting out properties if they’re subjected to regular mandatory inspections.
When cities can’t force developers to build affordable housing, nonprofits step in. In Reno County, home to Hutchinson, Interfaith Housing and Community Services is trying to connect renters to the safe, good-quality housing it rents out for less than 30 percent of a client’s income.
“We absolutely don’t lack for applicants in any of our programs,” said Clint Nelson, director of housing development at Interfaith.
Interfaith also has a program to give homeowners money for repairs and upgrading. The city has zero-interest loans for home repairs in some of its “featured neighborhoods” — often struggling areas where the recreation and planning departments are working with residents to build community pride and fix up common spaces.
Amy Allison, Hutchinson’s senior city planner, said the loan program and other city-sponsored home-improvement are geared more toward owner-occupied homes now. They may expand that to rentals.
Hutchinson officials are mostly trying to figure out how to grapple with the city’s aging housing and the possible risks it could provide to residents who struggle to find affordable places to live. They’re also trying to not run afoul of the 2016 restrictions passed by the state legislature.
The city’s scaled-back three-year inspection program sunsets this December. After that, the city council will have to decide if it wants to continue mandatory exterior inspections, or even take a crack at getting back into all the rentals’ interiors in a way that doesn’t run afoul of the 2016 state law.
“The goal of the program to begin with,” said Maxwell, “was to find those properties that are just unsafe — that no one should be living in — and if they’re too not feasible to fix, we should take them off the market.”
Madeline Fox is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @maddycfox.
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