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As temperatures dip in the winter months, safe homes become all the more critical. Broken furnaces, moldy ceilings and crossed wires all endanger residents who are spending more time indoors. For tenants, problems in their units can be a source of anxiety, especially if their landlord is reluctant to fix them.
To protect tenants, Kansas City established the Healthy Homes Rental Inspection Program after it was approved by 57% of voters in 2018. The aim is to ensure that all rental housing meets minimum health and safety standards. Since it was established, Healthy Homes has conducted more than 6,000 inspections, resulting in 17,479 health and safety violations.
Under the city’s Tenants Bill of Rights, passed by the City Council in 2019, rental housing must have functional heating, sewage, hot water, plumbing and electrical fixtures, and any provided appliances must remain functional. The Kansas City Health Department, which administers the Healthy Homes program, has a more detailed list of requirements available online.
The Healthy Homes program can compel a landlord to resolve a violation. Or its staff can fix a problem and send the landlord a bill. Here’s how the process works.
The rental inspection process begins with a complaint
When a tenant first encounters a safety violation in their home, Mason Andrew Kilpatrick, a community organizer with KC Tenants, encourages them to document it with a photo.
“Always document the situation,” they said. “Take pictures of the mold, take pictures of the heating unit, if it is not working, take pictures of the temperature and the temp check as well so they have actual proof.”
The next step is to contact the landlord. Kilpatrick encourages communicating by email or text so there is a written record of all communication.
If the landlord does not respond to the problem in an appropriate amount of time, the Healthy Homes program can step in. This time frame depends on the problem — for example, sewage leaks or defective heating are considered emergencies and require immediate action. Other problems, like a small internal hole in the wall, allow for a few days.
Although tenants are not required to prove that they contacted their landlord about a problem, it’s often a good first step, said Naser Jouhari, deputy director of the Health Department.
“In many cases the landlord has the right to first hear about the complaint and take a shot at fixing the problem,” he said. “If the landlord ignored the violation … or if there is an extended delay to fix the problem … we encourage (the tenant) to call us immediately.”
Healthy Homes can be reached at the 311 phone line, or their direct line, 816-513-6464.
Once the program is aware of the complaint, an inspector will schedule a time with the tenant to visit the rental unit — usually immediately.
Healthy Homes conducts a rental inspection
Most rental inspections result in at least one violation. Since the program was established in 2018, Healthy Homes inspectors have completed 4,714 inspections. Only 509, or about 11%, have resulted in no citations.
An inspector who finds a violation will issue a report to both the landlord and the tenant and create a “compliance plan” for the landlord, with a timeline for correcting the problem. Property owners who don’t follow the compliance plan could risk losing their rental permits.
As an example of different levels of hazards, Jouhari cited a scenario where sewage is leaking from an apartment above into a lower-floor apartment, creating an unhealthy environment, damaging the ceiling and leaving residue on the walls.
The sewage leak must be fixed immediately, Jouhari said. Otherwise, the landlord must pay for the tenant to stay elsewhere while the repair is underway.
“We would not leave the tenant with that violation existing,” Jouhari said.
The damaged ceiling is considered a “health hazard,” and the landlord is allowed anywhere from 24 to 72 hours to repair it.
The residue on the walls is considered a “non-health hazard.” The landlord would need to repaint the walls, but would be allowed an extra couple of days to fix it.
Once the Healthy Homes program has been notified that the repair has been completed, they will ask the tenant to confirm this. If the tenant says yes, the case is closed.
If the tenant says that the problem is still not resolved, the city will conduct a second rental inspection. Each reinspection comes with a fee, billed to the landlord.
After the third reinspection for a single case, the city suspends the landlord’s permit and, depending on the details of the case, can sometimes repair the violation and bill the landlord for the cost. Once the problem is resolved, the landlord can get their permit reinstated for a fee.
A high number of complaints can result in a larger investigation
Kilpatrick said that in situations where many tenants in the same building are experiencing problems, collective action can be a powerful tool.
“If you live in a multifamily unit, you could translate from the ‘I’ to the ‘we,’” they said. “It’s very easy for landlords or property management companies to ignore a single email coming from one tenant. But if you go to your neighbors and ask, ‘Hey, are you also having these problems?’ … it opens the doors about what to do after that.”
From the perspective of the Healthy Homes program, the process usually looks very similar whether it’s one tenant or a dozen tenants in a building. But occasionally, the program opens mass-scale investigations into large complexes dealing with consistent problems.
The Healthy Homes program has investigated Gabriel Tower at 1600 Jackson Ave., which had problems with air conditioning for nearly two weeks this summer, and Harvard Court at 4018 Harvard Lane, where many tenants were without heating and hot water in January 2022.
In cases like these, the Health Department can place the management on probation to prevent them from renting new units, and inspectors will canvass every unit to make sure everything is in working order.
In cases of suspected retaliation, tenants can speak with the city’s tenant advocate. The Health Department strictly prohibits retaliation, Jouhari said.
“We’ve had incidents where we have seen landlords retaliating against their tenants, and we put an end to it right then and there,” he said. “We have the power to take the permit from the landlord and tell them, ‘Thank you for doing business in Kansas City.’”
Kansas City Healthy Homes program
Call directly at 816-513-6464.
They can also be reached by calling 311.
KC Tenants Hotline
Call directly at 816-533-5435.
The hotline is staffed by tenant leaders, who are available to answer tenant questions or take incident reports.