There's a proposed rental inspection program on Tuesday's primary ballot in Kansas City, Missouri, something supporters say would hold landlords accountable but that opponents warn could have negative consequences down the line.
Question One, also known as the Healthy Homes Initiative, was placed on the ballot through a citizen initiative petition after a similar measure stalled in a city council committee last year.
It would charge owners of rental properties an annual registration fee per unit, which the city would use to hire inspectors to respond to complaints from tenants. If problems aren’t fixed, landlords would have to pay higher re-inspection fees until the issue is resolved.
Proponents say it offers a tool to tenants who have few resources to take action against absentee landlords, arguing that unsafe conditions in many of the city’s rental units pose urgent, serious health risks for children.
But yard signs distributed by the opposition group Housing for KC feature bold claims about what they say are unintended consequences from the measure.
The signs, urging people to vote “no” on Question 1, say “no new taxes” and “no warrantless police entry.”
The proposal makes no mention of any new taxes. The fees would be charged to landlords — a $20 landlord permit fee, $20 per unit annually and a $150 if a unit has to be re-inspected. Further fees would apply for additional re-inspections.
But Sam Alpert, executive director of the Heartland Apartment Association, argued those fees will cause landlords to raise rents.
“It’s a hidden tax, because ultimately it’s passed through, where you can, to the rent-payer,” Alpert said.
Alpert also said the proposal as currently written doesn’t include details about how much it would cost to implement an inspection program, which would be run by the city's health department. He added that officials could increase those fees if the program comes up short.
The yard signs also claim that the program would lead to “warrantless police entry.” The ordinance up for a vote says that in addition to complaint-based inspections, inspectors also would conduct some random searches.
Should someone refuse entry to an inspector, that city worker would have to obtain a warrant to enter the property. Alpert argued that if a city official shows up to someone’s door and says they need to inspect the apartment, a tenant would probably feel compelled to let them in — that, he said, constitutes a warrantless search.
“We submit that they are absolutely required under the law to report other things that they might see in those units that would go beyond the scope their charge,” Alpert said, adding that inspectors would have to report illegal firearms or drugs.
Henry Lyons, an activist who also opposes the measure, said it would disproportionately affect people of color living in affordable housing. He said random inspections would likely be concentrated in areas that have a high population of low or fixed-income residents, adding, "they’re not going to Two Light.”
Councilman Quinton Lucas, a Democrat, brought up the same concern nearly a year ago when a city council committee was discussing a similar program, but he has since indicated his support for Question One.
At the time, Dr. Rex Archer, who directs the Health Department, told councilmembers that reporting criminal activity is not their intent. He also said it isn't the department’s practice to report illegal activity when they do restaurant inspections, so he didn’t foresee it being an issue in housing inspections.
“The balance is, do you feel like you’ve got mechanisms to hold us as a health department accountable for using good judgment in how we operate this,” Archer said.
What's been done?
At least 50 other cities across the country, including Kansas City, Kansas, Independence and St. Louis have implemented similar programs. Since the original ordinance fizzed out in committee, no comprehensive housing reforms have been proposed.
A year ago, Michael Duffy, managing attorney of Legal Aid of Western Missouri, told KCUR that councilmembers would be hard-pressed find a better avenue to protect tenants.
“I don’t know of any city or jurisdiction that has found a way other than rental inspections,” Duffy said. “If there is, I’m all ears.”
Housing for KC, which has the support from many landlord organizations and other property management groups, has outspent proponents of the Healthy Homes initiative.
According to the latest information from the Missouri Ethics Commission, Housing for KC has spent nearly $25,000 opposing the measure. Citizens for Healthy Homes, has not reported any expenditures and only has $100 in cash on hand.
Lisa Rodriguez is a reporter and the afternoon newscaster for KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter @larodrig.