Safe and affordable housing contentious topic at SGA, City Commission town hall

City commissioners Linda Morse, Jerred McKee and Usha Reddi spoke at a joint town hall meeting with SGA on March 28. (Bailey Britton | Collegian Media Group)

Before the start of the final student senate meeting of the term, Student Governing Association and the Manhattan City Commission came together to address policy regarding safe and affordable rental housing in a joint town hall-style meeting.

The meeting served as a cap to a term where SGA’s Governmental Relations Committee focused on promoting Manhattan housing situations on top of other student related policy issues. Early in the term, SGA passed a resolution calling for community solutions to affordable housing, citing student concerns that the co-authors said necessitated student leader involvement.

Of the five city commissioners, only three were present – Usha Reddi, Jerred McKee and Linda Morse. Mike Dodson, current mayor, and Wynn Butler were invited, but were not in attendance.

Throughout the meeting, community members shared stories of perceived unsafe housing conditions and asked questions related predominately to housing. Questions also veered toward road conditions in Manhattan and key campaign issues each present commissioner ran on.

“We discuss [housing] almost every other year and I’m sure it’s going to come up again,” Reddi said. “When something is important, it does creep up all the time until we have satisfied the needs in the community. We are headed in the right direction, we are certainly not where we need to be.”

Early on in the town hall, Reddi pointed out that housing wasn’t a new issue in Manhattan. She said when she was running in the 2012 election season, questions about rental inspections were brought up at every one of the public forums she attended.

“During the four years I’ve been a commissioner, I have found affordable housing to be a tough thing to ever get our arms around and try to do something about,” Morse said. “I am delighted with the energy surrounding the current effort to make a difference in housing here in this community.”

If the goal of movements for safe and affordable housing in Manhattan is to have mandatory renters’ inspections, McKee said, that’s not the government trying to control the lives of private citizens and businesses, that’s “consumer protections.”

Corbin Sedlacek, director of local relations and junior in management and accounting, asked if, despite the success of a rental inspections program in Lawrence, any of the commissioners had concerns about implementing such a program in Manhattan.

Morse said there has been a constant push for a program like Lawrence’s, but the most that has been secured that lasted has been the current rental registration program.

Reddi said she wanted more than Lawrence’s program, she wanted to push for a better program.

“We don’t want something that’s going to be repealed, we want something that sticks and works and that takes time so I’m glad we’re having this conversation,” Reddi said.

McKee said on issues like housing “the devil is in the details.” He said it’s important to draw the line where safety is, citing how Lawrence adjusted their housing codes down to about 20 key issues focused specifically on safety to prevent overburdensome code violations. He also acknowledged faults in the current system, including the ordinance that limits the amount of unrelated tenants in a rental property to no more than four people.

“The system, it almost entirely favors … landlords over tenants,” McKee said.

In the past, as Reddi mentioned, Manhattan did have ordinances promoting rental inspections, but it was quickly repealed.

“We had rental inspections for one year in this community and guess what, planes didn’t fall out of the sky, the city didn’t burn down, we still had renter properties, everything was fine,” McKee said.

McKee said if the matter of housing came up for a vote today, it would most certainly pass.

Reddi closed the question and answer portion of the meeting reminding the community members in attendance that she doesn’t believe landlords truly have more power than tenants.

“[Power] doesn’t necessarily have to equate to money,” Reddi said.

McKee seconded the idea.

“You are the most powerful political voting-block in the city of Manhattan, Kansas. You run things and you don’t know it,” McKee said. “Part of the reason why [landlords] have had the chokehold on this is because frankly, you guys don’t vote in city elections.”

For more information about renters’ rights in Manhattan, check out the City of MHK website. If you are a student in need of off-campus housing support, make an appointment with Office of Off-Campus Housing Support by calling 785-532-6432.

My name is Kaylie McLaughlin and I'm the managing editor and audience engagement manager of the Collegian. Previously, I've been the editor-in-chief and the news editor. In the past, I have also contributed to the Royal Purple Yearbook and KKSU-TV. Off-campus, you can find my bylines in the Wichita Eagle, the Shawnee Mission Post and KSNT News. I grew up just outside of Kansas City in Shawnee, Kansas. I’m a senior in digital journalism with a minor in French and a secondary focus in international and area studies. As a third-generation K-Stater, I bleed purple and my goal is to serve the Wildcat community with accurate coverage.