On March 7th, 2017, the Manhattan City Commission adopted a Rental Registration Ordinance (see Rental Program on city website: http://cityofmhk.com/1474/ Rental-Program). The program will require landlords to provide information including rental unit address, number of dwelling units associated with that address, owner’s name and contact information, and certification that information is complete and correct. Importantly, this information will be coupled with data at the city indicating the extent to which these properties are code compliant (e.g., how many code violations have been reported on the property and whether or not the property has undergone voluntary inspection). Rental inspections are not required.

Problem

The ordinance is intended to address problems of housing quality and safety. Although personal anecdotes and testimonials are abound, quantitative data on housing quality is minimal. In Riley County, we know the following (US Census):

  • Percentage of occupied units with:
    • Lacking complete plumbing facilities: 0.8% (KS = 0.4%)
    • Lacking complete kitchen facilities: 1.2% (KS = 1%)
    • No telephone service available: 5.1% (KS = 2.7%)
  • Occupants per room
    • 1 or less = 93.1% (KS = 97.9%)
    • 1.01-1.50 = 0.9%(KS = 1.4%)
    • 1.51 or more = 5.9% (KS = 0.7%)

In other words, there is some evidence that Riley County has a disproportionate number of low quality units. There is also strong evidence of overcrowding. Given the high vacancy rate (9.1%), overcrowding is likely an adaptive strategy for low-income residents to afford housing. There are currently local efforts to collect more data on the quality of housing and the rental process.

Analysis

The ordinance is significant for several reasons. For renters, it allows would-be renters to know the code history of the property and make more informed decisions on whether they want to sign a lease and potentially give them greater negotiating power in the lease agreement. For landlords, it rewards the many owners who maintain the quality of their property. Presumably, the ordinance will lead to more informed consumers, more competition in the rental housing market, higher quality rental housing units, and improved public health.

Of course, several reasons exist to believe that the intended objectives will not be met. For many residents, location trumps quality. The lack of transportation and greater access to services force would-be renters closer to the city center, where competition for rentals is fierce, despite the almost 10% vacancy rate across Riley County. Second, the additional cost of property maintenance may lead to increases in rental costs, adding even more costburden to one of the most cost-burdened counties in the state of KS (45.6% of Riley County residents spend more than 35% of their income (KS = 36.2%, US = 42%)). How the new ATA Bus fixed-route transportation system and the new apartment complex on Marlatt Avenue that includes 600-800 new units will complement or buffer the negative consequences of the new ordinance and has yet to be seen.

Big picture

The new ordinance is a step in the right direction, but keep your eyes on the prize. The local housing situation resembles a larger phenomenon at work in cities across the country. Federal and state funding has been on the decline for several decades, including funding for public housing programs, and cities like Manhattan are looking for new ways to deal with this financial reality. As cities adopt zoning policies and support new development projects to usher in a new gentry, cost of living continues to increase and low-income residents are gradually pushed further and further out of the city. In fact, some social service agencies are actually recommending low-income clients to move to a different town.

Take action

Residents interested in keeping Manhattan’s housing safe and affordable would do well to be involved in city planning and development meetings in the coming weeks, months, and even years (e.g. the city’s Unified Development Ordinance, in progress).

Originally published in the MAPJ NEWSLETTER APRIL/MAY 2017 p. 5.

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