Clear the way for inspections

3/10/2012

Plenty of alarms should have gone off for city officials when they met with landlords last month to discuss rental property inspections.

Plenty of alarms should have gone off for city officials when they met with landlords last month to discuss rental property inspections.

The discussion during a pre-meeting of the Garden City Commission came about in the wake of the fire-related deaths of Nichole Savoy, 26, and her daughters, Bryn, 6, and Madelyn, 1, who died Jan. 8 from smoke inhalation when fire broke out at their home at East Nancy Avenue.

The house rented from local landlord Steve Burgess did not have a smoke detector.

Kansas law requires the owner of a structure to provide and install smoke detectors, and for good reason. Fire experts say a working smoke alarm increases the chances of surviving a house fire by more than 50 percent.

Burgess, a longtime local landlord, said he did not know about the smoke detector law in place since 1998.

In spite of that inexcusable shortcoming, some participants in the recent discussion still argued against rental inspections. County Commissioner Dave Jones even deemed inspections unnecessary because, as he said, state laws already are in place to protect tenants and landlords.

But not all landlords and tenants know or follow the law, and violations aren't always reported. Fire and safety inspections could reveal issues with smoke detectors and other safety-related areas, such as wiring, exits and furnace venting.

Another alarming part of the recent rental inspection discussion came in a report of just five complaints from renters last year in the city.

Such a low number in a city with so much rental housing and many residents who don't speak English reinforced the belief that many low-income renters may not understand their rights, or fear losing their home if they complain. Considering the local housing shortage, some renters no doubt would rather put up with problems than try to find another place to live.

And landlords quick to blame tenants for not being responsible surely know accidents happen. Education on fire safety is important, but cannot replace smoke detectors, proper escape routes and other safety measures that save lives when fires occur in any home, rental or otherwise.

Landlords who participated in the February meeting deserve credit for trying to be part of the solution. Their concerns must be considered, but local officials cannot afford a repeat of what happened a few years ago when the city honored landlords' wishes to avoid rental inspections, and instead pursued an educational program for landlords and tenants.

Even a vocal proponent of the education strategy, Burgess, did not know the law regarding smoke detectors after the fire at the Savoys' home earlier this year.

Possible strategies to improve the system include annual inspections by the city, inspections when new tenants move in, or tenants and landlords working together on inspection checklists.

Vice Mayor David Crase rightly noted that commercial properties are subjected to mandatory, annual inspections, and rental properties could be treated the same.

Rental housing intended to generate income is indeed a business venture that warrants such scrutiny. Periodic rental inspections also would compel landlords and tenants to be more vigilant in the upkeep of properties.

Meanwhile, officials with the county, where the fatal fire occurred, have been painfully slow to address the issue. They at least should work with the city on an inspection plan that encompasses all local residential rental properties. Some of the more suspect rental units sit just outside the city limits.

And the community has to justify any additional cost for a more stringent program.

Support for as much exists. As of Friday, more than 600 people had signed a Facebook petition calling for mandatory smoke detector inspections of residential rentals in Finney County.

Officials from the city and county should make consideration of a rental inspection plan a priority at their next joint meeting, if not sooner.

No issue in a community matters more, after all, than the safety of its residents.

Email Editor-publisher Dena Sattler at denas@gctelegram.com.

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