Kansas City Councilman Scott Wagner’s drive to get a controversial housing measure before voters this year fell short on Thursday.
Members of the city council’s Housing Committee put Wagner’s ordinance seeking an inspection fee for rental units on hold, meaning the city will not meet a deadline to put a question on the November ballot.
Wagner and officials from the Health Department had wanted to follow the lead of more than 50 cities around the nation and create a program whereby owners of rental properties would pay an annual fee. The city would use the money to hire inspectors, who would respond to complaints from tenants and neighbors about unsafe or unhealthy conditions.
In response to complaints from property owners, Wagner dropped the proposed fee to $25 per building, with a higher re-inspection fee required of landlords who fail to correct problems.
“That’s far less stringent than what we see in most areas around the country,” said Ruth Ann Norton, president of Baltimore’s Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, which supervises the rental inspection program there.
Norton traveled to Kansas City to testify in favor of the ordinance. A quality inspection program over time would save millions of dollars in health care costs and preventative building care, she said.
But that argument and others didn’t sway Wagner’s fellow committee members.
Councilwoman Teresa Loar wondered how the city would collect the fee and enforce the program — only a small percentage of landlords currently comply with a city requirement to pay a registration fee.
Councilwoman Alissia Canady said she thought the fee would raise rents and get in the way of a more comprehensive measure, such as a housing trust fund, to address to city’s shortage of quality low-income housing.
Michael Duffy, managing attorney of Legal Aid of Western Missouri, predicted in an interview earlier this week that council members will be hard pressed find a less controversial or 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.”
Area landlords told the Housing Committee the city needed to solve the problems caused by bad property owners without assessing a fee from those who maintain their properties.
“Everything I have is invested in providing decent, safe, affordable housing to people who live in my six rental homes,” said Robert Long.
But advocates for low-income families say the balance of power in the rental housing market is tilted heavily in favor of property owners. A landlord who has a complaint about property damage or illegal activity on the part of a tenant can initiate eviction proceedings. But tenants who are living in unsafe and unsanitary conditions have no such recourse.
“A lot of tenants try to work it out themselves or they just give up and they move out,” Duffy said.
Those voluntary departures — along with the high rate of evictions in the Kansas City area — contribute to the problem of children moving in and out schools and classrooms during the school year.
“It’s disruptive to their education,” said Brent Schondelmeyer, deputy director of the Local Investment Commission (LINC), which works with schools in low-income areas. “Children miss days of school and they lose connections with their friends and their teachers.”
With the measure on hold, the council could still take up the issue at a later date. But Wagner said he was “very concerned” that the Missouri legislature might act first with a statute preempting cities from imposing rental inspection fees.
“The problem will persist and so we need to look forward to see what we can do about it,” Wagner said after the vote. “What’s sad to me is there are still people who will call the city looking for a response and they won’t get one.”
Barbara Shelly is a freelance contributor for KCUR 89.3. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.