OPINION: Georgia renters face limited protections against landlords

Rent prices in Atlanta have been on the rise but tenants have limited protections. (Photo credit: Dreamstime)

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Rent prices in Atlanta have been on the rise but tenants have limited protections. (Photo credit: Dreamstime)

In mid-September, the weekend of Music Midtown, Alexandra Ries invited some friends to stay in the three-bedroom home she was renting in metro Atlanta.

Before they arrived, she assured them that her house was clean but there was just a weird smell that wouldn’t go away.

“I was embarrassed because I thought maybe I was doing something wrong,” said Ries, 25 who had recently moved from Athens to establish herself as an artist and potter.

But after her friends spent the night, one of them pulled her aside and suggested she get the house checked for mold. When Ries arrived home on Sunday night, the floors were slick, humidity hung in the air and her clothing and furniture felt damp.

On Monday, she called a mold inspector and paid $400 to make sure it was mold before she made a big stink to the landlord.

Ries shared a copy of the report with me, along with an email from the inspector indicating an extraordinarily high level of “44,733 aspergillus / penicillium mold spores per cubic meter of air” in the master bedroom. Most of it, said the inspector, was from indoor mold growth that could leave “non-visible mold contaminants on every surface in the home including walls, ceilings, floors, and personal contents.”

For a month prior, Ries had been feeling sick. Her doctor said it was tonsillitis and bronchitis but she hadn’t linked her condition to the house until that very moment. Since moving in, the home had one issue after another — the window frames had holes, the toilet leaked and the air conditioner needed repair over the summer.

No matter how much she cleaned, the house always seemed to have that strange smell.

She had already planned on moving out before her lease was up and had agreed to pay two months rent to be released, but after discovering the mold Ries was upset. She wanted out of her lease immediately. But in Georgia, it just isn’t that easy.

“Georgia is an incredibly landlord friendly state,” said Erin Willoughby, director of Clayton County Housing Legal Resource Center. “One of the problems is there is just not a lot of political will in our state legislature to change these laws. The landlord lobby is very powerful.”

The most recent update to the law in 2019 included a statute that protects tenants from retaliation by their landlords. That includes situations in which landlords try to evict tenants requesting repairs for unsafe living conditions. Georgia landlords are legally required to make necessary repairs. But unlike in some other states, Georgia tenants do not have the right to withhold rent.

Rent prices in Georgia were rising faster than most states last summer with average rents in nearing $1,500, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis in August. Rents for a two-bedroom apartment in Atlanta were up 10% in the past year and in several suburbs, including Duluth and Marietta, rents rose 20%.

As the demand and cost for rental housing increases, so should the protections for renters.

Representatives for Sapir Realty confirmed that the mold was remedied about a month after Ries reported the issue. Their inspector crawled under the house and discovered an air vent connected to the master bedroom had been disconnected resulting in mold growth.

Andrea Bunao, property management operations manager for Sapir, said a dispute with Ries over the situation had been resolved by the Better Business Bureau in their favor. She sent over a copy of the complaint in which the BBB found Sapir had “made a good faith effort to address the issues at hand.”

Bunao said they held Ries’ security deposit to satisfy her debt, which now includes additional fees for “tenant related damages,but Ries still owes about $2,500. Those damages include $850 for nail holes and repainting, Ries said.

She has since moved to a new home but is flummoxed that she still has to pay a month’s worth of rent and fees for a home that had mold.

Willoughby said the first step for tenants dealing with these situations is to ask the landlord to make any repairs in a reasonable timeframe.

If the landlord doesn’t take action, there are a few options. Inform the landlord you will make the repairs and deduct it from the rent. Then pay the difference in rent and include the receipts for repairs. But this could be a risk, Willoughby said. Corporate landlords may refuse to accept partial rent and begin eviction proceedings. Then the tenant would have to prove in court that they followed the law. With an eviction filing, the tenant would also end up with a blemish on their record that may stop other landlords from renting to them.

Another option, for tenants with the financial means, is to make the repairs themselves then sue the landlord for the cost.

Mold presents a different set of challenges. If the mold is causing medical issues, the onus is on the tenant to prove it, Willoughby said. The tenant also has to prove that the mold is the kind of mold that is dangerous and requires an inspection. The inspection must be done while the tenant is living in the property. The tenant must also prove the landlord knew about the mold when they rented the home.

These kinds of complaints often come through the hotline at the Housing Justice League, a community-led organization that helps renters and homeowners self-organize to protect their housing. Many residents eventually feel so worn down, they just give up.

Ries said she too has reached that point.

“This has been so horrifying and so stressful,” she said. “I just don’t want to deal with it anymore.”

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