Topeka has launched an ambitious initiative to create a culture of property maintenance throughout all of its neighborhoods. The goal for this initiative is an improved and thriving city where all neighborhoods are safe and healthy, and all residents live in decent and safe homes. The focus for this report, released in the first year of this initiative, is to better understand how city government can support better property maintenance and lift up the quality of property condition through equitable and effective code enforcement. The report offers 11 recommendations to make code enforcement more equitable and effective. The first two are to:
- Create Two Alternative Enforcement Paths for Low-Income Homeowners and Chronic Violators and Strengthen Standard Enforcement. Low-income homeowners are often the focus for code violations because many lack the resources to maintain the exterior of their homes. These owners need help to fix up their property. On the other hand, large professional landlords who are chronic violators need to know that they will be held responsible for unsafe or unsanitary conditions on their rental properties. Creating alternative enforcement paths for low-income homeowners and large rental property investment companies will help Topeka government to target limited enforcement resources to the worst offenders and assist compliance among owners who do not have the money to improve their property.
- Prioritize Unsafe and Unsanitary Conditions Within Rental Properties. The city has entered and inspected less than 1% of rentals. Yet there is a strong consensus by housing providers, landlords and community leaders that some landlords are renting illegal non-code compliant units to vulnerable tenants who may not know their rights to habitable and safe housing. Code enforcement relies upon tenant complaints to identify rental properties that are unsafe or unsanitary, because under Kansas law it is the tenant who must consent to have Property Maintenance inspectors enter the interior of the property. By removing bureaucratic requirements, strengthening protections against retaliatory eviction, partnering with nonprofits, and creating new policies to avoid tenant displacement, the city can better ensure tenants can enforce their legal right to a rental unit with adequate heat, light, and ventilation; working plumbing; secure windows and doors; and proper sanitation.