By Brian Eason, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A legislative panel on Tuesday approved a measure that would require landlords in Georgia to provide housing “fit for human habitation,” while backing off other changes to state law that tenant advocates said could undermine the effort to help renters.
The proposal would, for the first time, require Georgia landlords to ensure their rental homes are in livable condition — a guarantee commonly found in other states.
It would also increase protections for tenants facing eviction for falling a few days behind on rent.
While the measure still doesn’t go as far to protect renters as some say is needed, tenant advocates said the proposal represented a meaningful improvement, both from the status quo and from the original version of the Safe at Home Act, which was announced by House Republican leaders two weeks ago.
“The system is highly out of balance,” Elizabeth Appley, a lobbyist and 30-year advocate for safe, healthy and affordable housing, told the AJC in an interview.
“This is an important step toward balancing landlord and tenant rights. We’re grateful for these improvements.”
The legislation is partly a response to the AJC investigation “Dangerous Dwellings,” which found that the imbalance of power between landlords and renters in Georgia has allowed some low-income apartment owners to profit from tenants living in deplorable conditions. A subsequent AJC investigation, “American Dream for Rent,” found that large single-family rental landlords often subject renters to similar treatment and evade accountability.
Most witnesses who spoke out about House Bill 404 during a House Judiciary Committee meeting last week thanked its sponsor, Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton, for putting a spotlight on tenants’ living conditions.
But while the lobbying arm for apartment owners told lawmakers that the “Safe at Home Act” was acceptable as it was originally drafted, tenants’ rights advocates said the bill needed major revisions and could have even been detrimental to Georgia renters as introduced.
On Tuesday, Carpenter offered changes that addressed many of their complaints.
The bill no longer contains a provision that would have given landlords the power to expedite evictions for tenants charged or convicted of certain serious crimes. Carpenter also agreed to limit security deposits to no more than two months’ rent, down from three months in the original bill. Current law has no maximum, but many landlords require deposits of one month’s rent or less today, so critics worry it could lead to landlords charging more than they already do.
“I think you’re raising the standard, and you’re not minimizing the standard,” Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, said. “That’s my fear.”
Notably, the bill still does not define what “fit for human habitation” means and doesn’t say what tenants can do if their unit isn’t livable.
A representative of the Georgia Apartment Association said there are already laws on Georgia’s books requiring landlords to keep premises in repair and making landlords legally liable for damages if they fail to do so. When a premises is so uninhabitable it can’t be repaired, case law gives tenants rights to stop paying rent and move out, said Mike Williams, an attorney specializing in residential and commercial property litigation.
Another apartment association lobbyist, Haydon Stanley, said state law also gives local governments the right to shut down rental properties that are unfit for human habitation.
“Local government has long had the authority and the obligation to adopt habitability standards, and they have the authority to enforce those,” Stanley said. “So we’re at somewhat of a loss why we’re seeing these dilapidated properties when local government has full authority to go in and ensure that those are addressed.”
Appley — lobbying for a number of nonprofit housing advocacy groups — told the committee that language defining “habitable” should be modeled after the Uniform Residential Landlord & Tenant Act, which she said has been adopted by 29 states.
She has handed her own proposed revisions to the bill’s sponsor, with new language requiring that rental units comply with building and housing codes, be free of trash, have clean common areas, supply running water and hot water, and have working appliances and working electrical, plumbing, heating and air. If those standards aren’t met, Appley would allow tenants to break their leases, withhold rent or make repairs on their own and deduct the cost from rent payments.
“We have to have a remedy in order to give meaning to the promise of fit for human habitation,” Appley told the committee.
AJC staff writer Johnny Edwards contributed to this report.