Kent may adopt licensing system for rental units

Christina Stavale

The city of Kent is looking at new ways to foster a positive attitude about rooming houses and their relationship with the rest of the community.

In a joint meeting last night between the Planning Commission, the Board of Zoning Appeals and City Council, members discussed this issue, pointing to a possible licensing system as a solution.

Currently, the health department annually licenses these properties by inspecting interior aspects such as bedroom size. The new licensing system would be broader and require properties to meet requirements, such as parking lot sizes, and pass annual inspections.

Community Development Director Gary Locke said the licensing system might include demonstrating that the property is legal under the zoning code and identifying the names and number of tenants living there to prevent overcrowding.

Members made it clear rooming houses don’t have the best reputation in Kent, and that’s why they are looking to make changes. Locke said about two-thirds of properties in Kent are rental properties.

“A rooming house does not have to be a bad thing,” he said. “Behaviors associated with them are what get a bad name for boarding houses.”

Members compiled a list of problems community members see associated with rooming houses. The list included litter, noise and parties, criminal activity and a lack of community pride.

Locke said, in his opinion, about 80 percent of the problems with boarding houses -including these -don’t fit into the city’s zoning code. The zoning code defines what a rooming house and family is, outlines how much parking space is required and defines where rooming houses can and can’t be built. But it doesn’t regulate behavioral issues.

The Kent zoning code currently regulates the formation of new rooming houses to certain zones. Before becoming a rooming house, though, it must go through zoning review. However, many rooming houses outside these zones are “grandfathered,” meaning because they were once allowed in their “zone,” they still are legal. Instead of making the large number of these houses illegal, the goal is to improve their image.

“We’re looking at a better way to maintain them,” Locke said. “Tenants say they’re not happy.”

But despite sometimes poor upkeep and landlords that aren’t present, Planning Commissioner Sean Kaine said rooming houses in areas such as College Street and Willow Street will remain popular with college students because of their location.

With a new licensing system, Ward 5 Councilwoman Heidi Shaffer said property owners would be put on a more level playing field. She said those landlords who are “doing their job” won’t necessarily have to change anything.

Elizabeth Howard of the Board of Zoning Appeals said the issue comes down to creating a positive attitude between permanent and temporary residents.

She said she’s lived in a college town almost her whole life, and while in Lawrence, Kan., she said permanent residents embraced her as a college student, while in Kent and Athens, she was “run out on a rail.”

“The difference is astonishing,” she said. She said she would like to see students in Kent be welcomed like she was in Lawrence.

The discussion will continue March 17, and the groups will review the zoning code’s definitions of terms such as rooming houses and families. They will also outline a very broad draft of a licensing system, including what other communities are doing about the same issues.

Contact news editor Christina Stavale at [email protected].