Kansas Town Turns Aggressive Toward Landlords, Threatens 4th Amendment

Published December 10, 2013

After ruling in 2013 that city residents aren’t capable of safely managing furniture on their own front porch, one Kansas community is considering taking its control of residents’ lives to the next level: mandated governmental inspections.

That could soon be the reality for the thousands of people living in the more than 20,000 rental units across Lawrence, which includes University of Kansas, if city commissioners approve an expansion of its rental licensure ordinance. Last August city commissioners outlawed couches on front porches.

The city already has a process through which tenants or landlords can request inspections if they suspect some kind of problem, but the new proposal would make such action compulsory.

As it stands, the ordinance would require landlords to register their properties to the tune of about $25 annually per location. Additionally, once every three years 10 percent of a landlord’s properties would be subject to mandatory searches by city building inspectors looking for major and minor health and safety violations — regardless of whether a tenant occupies the property. If no major violations are found, the given property will be bumped to a six-year inspection cycle as incentive.

‘Secure In Their Houses, Papers, Effects’

The program has existed in some form for more than a decade, but so far it has been relegated to a relatively small portion of the city. But up for grabs now is a proposal that would expand the measure across the municipality, and into the living rooms of thousands of residents. While officials argue the ordinance is to combat slumlords and improve “life safety,” opponents are saying the measure could pose a significant threat to Fourth Amendment rights, which read, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated . . .”

Inspectors would be tasked with documenting through photographs and video any violations they find. Of course, there’s no telling what else could be caught in the scope of an inspector’s lens, and whether that information could make it into the hands of local law enforcement.

While the measure was set to come up for a vote Tuesday, an outpouring of opposition pushed city officials to table the measure for a few more weeks. A significant number of those voicing concern referenced a similar 2009 ordinance enacted — and later repealed — in Kansas’s other big college town, Manhattan.

College Kids In Crosshairs

Only months before the program’s demise in 2011, a Manhattan city inspection resulted in several college students being hauled before a municipal judge to face a litany of code violations. The young adults were sentenced to 15 days in jail, but they ultimately received nine months’ probation, contingent upon further compliance.

Aside from the privacy intrusion, the measure would also constitute a significant expansion of local government staff and spending. City officials estimate they would need to hire five full-time inspectors, as well as an administrative staffer, to handle the influx of bureaucracy associated with the ordinance. The projected cost associated with this is about $400,000.

Auditors: Go Bigger, Pricier

A 2012 city audit concluded the current, limited program and fee schedule are woefully inadequate. Over a two-year period, auditors concluded that registration revenue — totaling about $40,000 — covered less than half of the salary and benefit costs associated with the program, instead sloughing the majority of the cost onto general revenues.

Auditors suggest the city simply expand the program and hike up the fee to $40 annually, though it’s not reflected in the proposal’s current form.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri announced recently it plans to launch an investigation into privacy threats posed by the ordinance, legal director Doug Bonney noted in a letter to city officials in late November. Bonney told Kansas Watchdog he had heard city code officials would — or could — pressure landlords into compelling their tenants to sign consent forms permitting inspections.

The matter raises questions about whether consent is truly voluntary, Bonney said.

A federal appeals court in 2007 upheld an earlier challenge to the city’s limited rental licensing program.

Travis Perry ([email protected]) reports for KansasWatchdog.org. Used with permission.