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One Year In, Kansas City's Inspection Program Is Improving Conditions For Renters

Kansas City Health Deparment
The Kansas City Health Department issued a notice to vacate after finding multiple violations at the Englewood apartments.

In the past, Kansas City officials had no authority to rectify health and safety problems in rental properties. But in August 2018, voters approved an initiative that allowed the health department to investigate complaints and to seek remedies.

In August of this year, the City Council expanded that authority to include federally subsidized Section 8 housing like the Englewood Apartments, as well as nonprofit rental housing.

When Kansas City Councilman Dan Fowler and health department inspectors recently visited a Northland apartment complex, Fowler was shocked and appalled at what he saw in one unit.

“The second the door opened, cockroaches started falling from the ceiling,” Fowler recalled of the Aug. 30 visit to the Englewood Apartments near Interstate 29 and Waukomis Drive. “There was human feces sitting in the middle of the floor…..Frankly, I’m surprised we didn’t have a cholera outbreak or worse.”

The unit Fowler visited was vacant but there were toys and other evidence that children had recently lived there. The cockroaches were so bad that they infested occupied units nearby. Fowler thought to himself, “I couldn’t see how human beings could even live in what we saw.”

Credit Kansas City Health Department
Kansas City Health Department
Cockroaches streamed out of the walls at Englewood during a health department inspection.

So after the Aug. 30 inspection, the health department was able to shut down the Englewood building with the deplorable conditions. About 10 families living there were relocated at the expense of the owner, Cleveland-based Millennia Housing Management. The complex’s owner is now working on a plan to fix the problems.

Fowler says the year-old rental inspection program is making a big difference for tenants who previously had little recourse against bad landlords.

“I think it is working very, very well in fact,” he said.

Solutions were needed

Fowler believes it was needed.

“I like to think most landlords in Kansas City are good landlords that pay attention to their properties, but certainly there were abuses,” he said. “Throughout the city there were landlords and we saw evidence of that when we were considering the ordinance, where apartments were not taken care of and people were suffering because of it.”

The program is complaint-driven. In the past year, the Kansas City Health Department has fielded about 1,000 complaints from throughout the city -- everything from mold and insect infestations to sewage backups, lack of running water and broken air-conditioning.

It has been able to resolve about 60 percent of those cases and works with property owners to rectify the problems, said Naser Jouhari, senior public health manager with the city.

“We’re seeing corrective action plans submitted by landlords, and they are fixing most of the violations that we see,” Jouhari said.

Life-threatening violations must be fixed immediately or the city will order that tenants be moved. The Englewood Apartment situation was the first time the city had to vacate apartments because they were uninhabitable, Jouhari said. 

Still, there are many problem properties and Jouhari would like more staff. Currently, the program is budgeted for 11 positions and eight are filled. Jouhari hopes to hire a few more employees to respond even more quickly.

The program is funded primarily through a $20 per-unit fee paid by the landlords annually when they register their properties. So far, Jouhari said, the city has registered about 67,000 units. It estimates about 20,000 more will be added now that the Council has expanded the program to include federally-subsidized or nonprofit properties.

Tenant empowerment

Many tenants in Kansas City have struggled for years, but Fowler says the tide may be changing. There’s a new tenants rights group called KC Tenants that has formed to push for safe, affordable rental housing.

The Healthy Homes initiative is another piece of that, Fowler says.

“With the citizens passing this on an election,” he said, “I think it shows generally that there is an awareness and a concern for the quality of housing that we’re renting out to people.”

One challenge remains — making sure renters know the program exists. City officials are trying to raise awareness.

Tenants with complaints can call the City’s Action Center (3-1-1) or call the Healthy Homes Rental Inspection Program at 816-513-6347. Or they can file a complaint in person at the Health Department offices, 2400 Troost Ave. Suite 3600.

Kansas City Councilman Dan Fowler and Kansas City Senior Public Health Manager Naser Jouhari spoke with KCUR 89.3 on a recent edition of Up To Date.

Lynn Horsley is a freelance journalist and was a veteran reporter for The Kansas City Star. Follow her on Twitter @LynnHorsley.