Lawmakers Advance Changes To Rental Property Inspections

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By John Celock

Following a debate that centered on the protection of Fourth Amendment rights versus protecting tenants, Kansas lawmakers advanced legislation to end local laws on rental property inspection.

The state House of Representatives voted 67-55 Monday to give preliminary approval to legislation that would prohibit local governments from adopting ordinances mandating inspections of rental properties without the consent – or the request – of the owner or tenant. The bill would end existing ordinances in four cities, including throughout Wyandotte County, where legislators fought for an exemption.

“This essentially usurps your Fourth Amendment rights,” Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina), who was carrying the bill, said about the existing laws. “It is a warrantless search, it is government coming into your home.”

The bill would end existing ordinances in Hutchinson, Manhattan and Lawrence, along with Wyandotte County, which includes Kansas City, that allow local governments to conduct inspections of rental property when decided by the local code official. Under the terms of the bill, tenants and owners can make a request for inspection at any time. Inspections can continue with a search warrant. The bill does not apply to the inspection of common interior areas or the exterior of the residence.

Opponents of the legislation said that the bill would take away power from local governments to set building codes that work in their communities. They also said it would hurt those living in poorer neighborhoods by preventing safety inspections of decaying housing stock.

Rep. John Doll (R-Garden City) cited issues in rental properties in his community where people were killed in fires because of faulty electrical wiring or in one case the windows having been nailed shut. He said inspections could have prevented these issues.

Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore (D-Kansas City) said Wyandotte County adopted the local inspection ordinance 20 years ago in order to address decaying housing stock in Kansas City. She said the ordinance was modeled after a similar ordinance in Minneapolis, Minn. She said the ordinance has been successful in Wyandotte County, noting that the city has address decaying housing stock, particularly among absentee landlords. She also noted the ordinance was addressed in three other cities and that Overland Park is considering a similar ordinance.

“This was the only way to get these absentee landlords to fix these properties,” Wolfe Moore said. “What we found that these people were living in horrible conditions. There were serious plumbing problems and serious electrical problems. This has been very successful in our community.”

Wolfe Moore addressed Claeys’ Fourth Amendment arguments, saying that in 1996 the Kansas Court of Appeals upheld the Wyandotte County ordinance.

Wyandotte County lawmakers fought to keep their ordinance in place. Rep. Stan Frownfelter (D-Kansas City), the top Democrat on the House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee, unsuccessfully offered an unsuccessful amendment that would have rewritten the bill to allow local governments to pass ordinances to require inspections of rental properties when the owner purchases a property and makes changes to the property, along with any time the title of the property changes hands. Frownfelter said that his amendment would be similar to owners having to obtain building permits if they make additions to their property.

“The community stays healthy and the community stays safe,” Frownfelter said of his amendment.

Claeys objected to the amendment, citing the Fourth Amendment.

“This amendment undoes the intent of the bill. The bill allows for the lawful tenant or the owner of the building or the residents can ask for an inspection,” Claeys said. “The purpose of the amendment will undo that. The bill allows for Fourth Amendment protections and the amendment undoes that.”

Rep. Will Carpenter (R-El Dorado) voiced objection to the Frownfelter amendment saying that he did not know how the government could enter the property without the permission of the property owner of the tenant.

Frownfelter’s amendment failed 43-75.

Frownfelter then came back up to propose an amendment that would allow the Wyandotte County ordinance to continue only. Claeys objected to the Wyandotte only amendment saying that the language would not be uniform in the overall bill and would open up a loophole to allow more local governments to adopt similar ordinances. Rep. Tom Sawyer (D-Wichita) said that that Claeys’ objection was wrong, saying that under state law the other local governments would need to pass a charter ordinance, which would require a super majority and other steps than a regular ordinance.

Frownfelter’s second amendment failed 56-61.

Frownfelter attempted to offer a third amendment that would exempt Wyandotte County but allow for the exemption to sunset in 2021, saying it would allow Wyandotte to serve as a “guinea pig” for the state. Frownfelter was not allowed to offer the amendment due to House rules that prohibit a lawmaker from speaking more than two times on a bill. Rep. Pam Curtis (D-Kansas City) stepped up to propose the exemption with a sunset provision. Curtis previously served as chief of staff to a former mayor of the Unified Government of Kansas City and Wyandotte County and has been outspoken on local control issues.

This is a very important issue to Wyandotte County,” Curtis said. “We really work in Wyandotte County to make sure we have good housing stock.”

Claeys objected to the Curtis amendment, saying it would make Wyandotte County different from the other 104 counties in the state.

“Your right to say no to a government agent coming into your home shouldn’t be different in Wyandotte County,” he said.

The Curtis amendment failed 55-64.

The debate was part of an ongoing debate over local government issues in the state. Local officials have been arguing that the state is trying to take away control from local government. Last week, lawmakers blocked an amendment regarding allowing local governments to restore ordinances requiring a prevailing wage be paid for municipal public works projects. The prevailing wage debate centered largely on Wyandotte County.

During the debate, Rep. Nancy Lusk (D-Overland Park) said that she owned rental property in Lawrence and has worked with Lawrence code enforcement officials on the inspections. She said local code officials would send her a letter to schedule an inspection and that it was easy to set-up. She also said the inspections told her about issues in her property that she did not know about and was able to then address.

“We should back off and let the local cities do what’s best,” she said.

Wolfe Moore stressed that the local ordinances were working.

“These are working in our local communities well,” she said. “I don’t understand why the state of Kansas needs to interfere.”

Lawmakers spent much of the debate on the impact of the housing stock in these neighborhoods and the impact on residents. Frownfelter said that the amendment would address those in poor neighborhoods with decaying housing stock.

“We are asking people to live in these places,” he said. “I don’t know about you, but where I live some are pretty, pretty bad.”

House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee Chairman Mark Hutton (R-Wichita) said that people do not need to live in the properties.

“They have every right in the world not to live in that property,” Hutton said.

Rep. Steven Becker (R-Buhler) took issue with Hutton’s comments, noting that some of the tenants do not have a choice.

“It is easy for each individual in this property that they agree to live in that squalor. Yeah, that’s because that is all they can afford,” Becker said. “Let’s let the city inspect them for goodness sake and we can protect some people.”

Becker also objected to Claeys’ Fourth Amendment arguments, saying that landlords are giving up their expectation to privacy by renting out a property that they do not live in.

Claeys stressed to his colleagues that the bill would not prevent tenants from requesting a code inspection.

“It simply protects the rights of homeowners and tenants from governments conducting an inspection of rental property, unless the occupant requests the inspections,” he said. “There is nothing that stops the tenant from requesting an inspection at another time.”


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