By Celia Hack | KMUW
State law makes it illegal for landlords to retaliate against tenants for complaining to city inspectors, but there is no enforcement agency.
Wichita is considering fines for landlords who retaliate against tenants who are otherwise in good standing.
The proposed ordinance introduced Tuesday to City Council would penalize landlords who evict or raise rent within six months of a tenant’s complaint to the city or landlord about housing conditions. It would not apply to tenants who are late on rent or fail to uphold other tenant responsibilities. The council has not yet voted on the ordinance.
State law makes it technically illegal for landlords to retaliate against tenants for complaining to city inspectors. But there is no agency to enforce the rule.
“There’s nowhere to make complaints other than some kind of discrimination complaint,” said Nate Johnson, an assistant city attorney for Wichita.
The proposed ordinance is based on a similar one Topeka passed in July. Two council members, Brandon Johnson and Mike Hoheisel, said they wanted to see Wichita enact something similar because of how often they hear about retaliation in their districts.
“Right now, I know there’s a landlord with over 100 properties that someone has complained their AC is out,” Johnson said. “We know it’s over 100 degrees. That landlord is trying to evict them today because of that complaint.”
But council members from other parts of the city said they rarely, if ever, hear about the issue.
“I don’t know that I’ve had very many retaliation eviction complaints,” said council member Jeff Blubaugh, who is a real estate investor.
The proposed ordinance would allow tenants to file complaints about retaliation with the city.
A city-appointed investigator would then review the incident and forward the case to a municipal court judge, who could fine the landlord up to $1,000 if retaliation took place.
Blubaugh said he isn’t sure that a fine gets to the root of the problem – that a person or family is being wrongfully evicted.
“Really what we want to do is we want to stop the eviction if somebody’s doing it to not repair something and just get somebody out of the house,” he said. “It doesn’t do any good to get them evicted and then you go back and fine the landlord. That didn’t resolve that family’s issue.”
Kevin Kimmel is a board member with Rental Owners Incorporated, a group of rental property owners in Wichita. He said he’s concerned that the proposed ordinance adds regulation that would drive up housing costs, which are already high.
“They’re just taking away rights from property owners and increasing the expense,” Kimmel said. “I don’t think it’s necessary because … it’s not a prevalent practice. I’ve never known anybody to do anything like that.”
He added that he’s concerned the policy would limit landlords’ ability to give tenants who aren’t under leases a 30-day notice to vacate if maintenance to a property is needed. He said it can be difficult to do major projects like painting the inside of a house when a tenant is in the property.
“What are you going to do?” Kimmel said. “Are you going to tell the tenant, ‘OK, rent a boxcar, put the boxcar in the front yard for 30 days while I come in and paint?’”
Alvin Mitchell is a tenant who received a notice to leave the rental house he lived in after calling the city’s inspections department.
He said he would prefer landlords be required to pay tenants they’ve retaliated against, instead of paying the city a fine. But he’s glad the city is discussing repercussions.
“I agree with the starting point. Fine them,” Mitchell said. “It’s a start, until it can get better.”
Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership Center’s The Journal. She is originally from Westwood, Kansas, but Wichita is her home now. See stories by Celia Hack
This article was republished here with the permission of: KMUW