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Lexington panel takes steps to ensure safety of student rentals

The Urban County Council's planning committee took two significant steps on Tuesday to manage the safety of rental housing in the city.

It endorsed the University of Kentucky's recently announced plan for an off-campus student housing office to help manage concerns about rental units.

The committee also asked the Building Inspection Task Force to look for ways the city could access rental units to make sure they comply with fire and safety codes.

The proposed UK student housing office could serve as a liaison between students and landlords, as well as educate students about being responsible neighbors, Tom Harris, UK vice president of external affairs, told committee members.

There is no budget for creating such an office, but Harris said after the meeting that the university is committed to finding the money.

John Roberts, who owns student rental property near the campus, said that in establishing the office, "we have a solution to the problem" of landlords who don't maintain safe property.

The student housing office would maintain a Web site listing rental properties that meet the university's standards, which would include passing city safety inspections.

Roberts said students and parents would check the Web site for rental recommendations.

"It's going to take a couple of years, but the economics will force bad landlords to come on board," Roberts said.

Earlier in Tuesday's meeting, on a motion by 2nd District Councilman Tom Blues, the planning committee agreed to ask the Building Inspection Task Force, chaired by 6th District Councilman Kevin Stinnett, to find ways to make sure rental property complies with city safety codes.

The city now has to be invited into a property by either a tenant or a landlord to make inspections. Blues would like to see ground rules that require inspection.

"The ability to inspect, to make sure rental units are safe is of paramount importance," Blues said. "The problem is, unless we are invited in, we don't know that a unit is operating up to code."

The city now has very little access to rental houses, Blues said, "even ones we know to have very serious safety issues."

However, another vote at Tuesday's meeting showed that mandatory inspections might face opposition: the planning committee voted down a motion to adopt a citywide rental license fee.

At previous meetings, questions have arisen about whether it would be practical to inspect every rental unit in the city on a regular basis, and whether such fees would be too much of a financial burden for landlords.

A rental license was one of the top recommendations of a student rental housing task force that reported to the planning committee in September.

The task force proposed that all rental properties be licensed by the city and have to be inspected on a regular basis.

A number of cities have similar programs, task force chairman Mike Meuser told the planning committee. A rental license would be a way to have regular inspections for life-safety issues on rental properties citywide, he said. Fees collected would be used to run the program.

Chuck Ellinger, councilman-at-large, and 5th District Councilwoman Cheryl Feigel opposed such licensing.

Feigel said the city in recent weeks had been getting "good cooperation" from landlords to inspect property. She worried that a license might put a damper on that cooperation.

The license rental motion will be forwarded as a failed vote to next week's Urban County Council work session, where council will vote on it.