By Nomin Ujiyediin
Mold. No heat in the winter. Leaking roofs.
The most common complaints Teresa Baker hears about rental housing in Kansas revolve around poor living conditions that violate state law.
As part of her job for the nonprofit Housing and Credit Counseling Inc., Baker serves as an advice guru for low-income residents in about 20 Kansas counties.
Tenants come to her if they’ve received eviction notices, forfeited security deposits or can’t get landlords to make repairs. Sometimes, she counsels landlords, too.
“Of course, it’s the landlord’s business to understand what the law says and his obligations,” Baker said. “The tenants are coming at this blindly.”
Kansas law sets some rules for inevitable disputes between renters and property owners. Yet some tenants and advocates contend landlords too often end up on top because they have more money and familiarity with the rules. The imbalance is leading some tenants to take action.
Housing experts also say Kansas lacks protections that other states offer to renters.
For example, state law prohibits cities and counties from establishing rent control and other rental regulations. Another tactic allowed by other states but banned in Kansas: withholding rent to force a landlord to make repairs. State law allows a landlord to evict tenants for being three days late on the rent.
“That’s one of the Number One things that we deal with, with tenants,” Baker said. “They call us when it’s too late, but they withheld rent and they’re going to court tomorrow.”
Ed Jaskinia, a Kansas City-area landlord and lobbyist for the Associated Landlords of Kansas, says the laws fairly balance the interests of both sides — renters who need to be guarded from predatory landlords, and landlords who want to maintain their properties and make money.
“We’ve got the best laws in the country because it protects everybody equally,” said Ed Jaskinia, a Kansas City-area landlord and lobbyist for the Associated Landlords of Kansas. “It tells us what the rules and regulations are, what we can and can’t do.”
He says tenants should take up their proposed reforms to the cities they live in.
In the meantime, he says tenants already have protections. For example, if a landlord won’t make repairs, tenants can call their city’s code enforcement division to make an inspection. And state law prohibits landlords from retaliating against tenants who do so.
But it’s hard to prove retaliation in court, Baker said. And she said many rural towns don’t have the budget to enforce housing codes.
“Even if they have some type of code on the books,” Baker said, “they don’t enforce it because they can’t.”
Another option for tenants is suing a landlord in small claims court for not completing repairs, exorbitant utility bills or not returning a security deposit.
State law requires landlords to return deposits within 30 days with an itemized list of charges taken out. Otherwise, tenants can sue for one-and-a-half times the amount of the original deposit.
“It’s very common for landlords to keep your security deposit for expenses that I don’t think would be legal,” said Casey Johnson, an attorney for Kansas Legal Services who counsels low-income people on housing. “Those are some good protections for tenants.”
But small claims lawsuits often turn out in favor of the landlord.
“It’s very difficult to get evidence and time to present into a court case,” Johnson said. “Kansas, I would say, is fairly landlord-friendly.”
Some residents of Lawrence, Manhattan and Kansas City — where renting is more common than in the rest of the state — are trying to change that. They say there’s a shortage of quality and affordable housing.
Data from the Census Bureau shows that the overall rental vacancy rate in Kansas in 2017 was 7.5%. In Kansas City, it was 8.5%, in Manhattan, it was 10.6% and in Lawrence, it was 6.7%. In the U.S. overall, 6.1% of rental units were vacant in 2017.
Generally, cities in Kansas have a higher proportion of residents who are rent-burdened — defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as spending 30% or more of their income on rent. More than 53% of Lawrence and Manhattan residents are rent-burdened, compared to 44% of all Kansans and 50.6% of Americans overall.
A group called Renters Together, in Manhattan, formed earlier this year, holds weekly meetings with the goal of increasing the number of rental units that the city inspects.
“We’ve noticed that landlords have been retaliating against tenants that do call code services here,” said Jonathan Cole, lead organizer for the group. “We’ve also noticed that people just don’t know that they can call.”
A similarly named group in Lawrence, Renters Together LFK, recently hosted a meeting to tell tenants how to get their security deposits back. The group has knocked on doors and spoken to hundreds of local tenants, said organizer Yoshi Stout.
“At the end of the day,” Stout said, “the tenants need to have some sort of agency for themselves.”
The group encouraged Lawrence resident Kayla Marks to sue her landlord, Manhattan-based company McCullough Development, Inc., in Douglas County small claims court.
In August 2018, Marks and her boyfriend moved into an apartment in Lawrence that she says was a mess. The place was dirty. A window was broken. There was a hole in a bedroom door and the linoleum floor needed to be replaced.
She tidied up and let her landlord know about the repairs. A few months later, the floor and the window were fixed, but by then, she had to move out. She and her boyfriend had broken up, and she couldn’t afford the apartment by herself. Her depression got so bad that she was hospitalized. She got a note from her doctor saying she could no longer live by herself.
In February 2019, Marks applied for a legally required accommodation for her disability, asking to move out of her apartment. Her landlord granted it, but said she owed another month’s rent and sent her a bill for cleanup after she moved out. The company charged her an additional $258, which she disputed.
McCullough Development, Inc., declined multiple requests for comment.
“I’m a clean freak, so this place was spotless,” Marks said. “So I just didn’t think that that was right.”
She sued, asking for money back on her rent and deposit. She didn’t get any money back, but a judge ruled that she didn’t owe her landlord money either.
Marks said she wouldn’t have known how or why to sue without the help of Renters Together.
“I didn’t even know what the actual verdict was until I had to ask somebody,” she said. “But knowing that the verdict was that I don’t owe anything, I’m very pleased.”
Nomin Ujiyediin reports on criminal justice and social welfare for the Kansas News Service. Follow her on Twitter @NominUJ or email nomin (at) kcur (dot) org.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.