Backers hold out hope for bill to boost Georgia renter rights

HB 404 would require rentals to be ‘fit for human habitation’
Atlanta code enforcement, zoning, and State Department of Community Affairs do a sweep of Pavilion Place apartments in August 2022. A state bill requiring that apartments be "fit for human habitation" failed in the Senate last session, but backers of the bill hope they'll get another chance. (Curtis Compton / Curtis Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Atlanta code enforcement, zoning, and State Department of Community Affairs do a sweep of Pavilion Place apartments in August 2022. A state bill requiring that apartments be "fit for human habitation" failed in the Senate last session, but backers of the bill hope they'll get another chance. (Curtis Compton / Curtis Compton@ajc.com)

As Georgians continue to struggle under some of the nation’s weakest renter protections, a broad coalition backing a bill to require landlords to provide habitable housing is holding out hope for passage in the upcoming legislative session.

House Bill 404 passed the state House unanimously in 2023 to a standing ovation but failed to come up for a Senate vote in the session’s final hours, despite backing from House Speaker Jon Burns, R-Newington.

Now the Safe at Home Act must go back to committee in the Senate, where Burns and others hope it will regain momentum.

“The House was proud to support the Safe at Home Act establishing the right of every Georgian to a habitable living environment,” Stephen Lawson, a senior adviser to Burns, said in a written statement. “We look forward to working with our friends in the Senate to make it a reality during this upcoming legislative session.”

State Rep. Kasey Carpenter, a Dalton Republican, introduced the bill after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Dangerous Dwellings investigation showed tens of thousands of metro area apartment tenants living in perilous conditions while the private equity firms and other investors who owned the complexes reaped millions of dollars.

Under this business model, landlords ignored complaints of roaches, mold, rats and raw sewage spills or repeat violent crime, sometimes retaliating against tenants for speaking out, renters said. An AJC analysis based on crime reports, code complaints and other public records identified more than 270 persistently dangerous complexes in Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Gwinnett and Fulton counties. Nearly all are in predominantly non-white neighborhoods.

‘Anger and frustration’

As lawmakers return to the General Assembly, substandard, dangerous conditions persist at metro Atlanta apartment complexes. A new AJC analysis that includes updated crime data shows that at some, the violence grew worse, at least for a time.

The Forest at Columbia in south DeKalb County added an additional 55 serious crimes from January 2022 through July 2023. They included 26 aggravated assaults, 11 robberies, a forcible fondling and a forcible rape.

But on a recent visit, doors to the complex were freshly painted in yellow, and trash and loiterers were gone. Community manager Brittany Lewis said she cleared out residents who were dealing drugs or gambling in the breezeways. The complex is under renovation.

“It was bad, I know. I didn’t want to be here,” said Lewis. “Now it’s nothing like it was.”

Rep. Kasey Carpenter (R-Dalton) introduced the Dangerous Dwellings Bill in the last legislative session. House Bill 404 passed the state House unanimously but failed in the Senate. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

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Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

At a recent visit to Highlands at East Atlanta, also in south DeKalb, the grounds were strewn with trash, and paper signs taped on its leasing office said it was closed for the holidays. It had 118 crimes from 2017-2021. Then from January 2022 through July 2023, police records show it added 57 more, including two homicides, three robberies, and additional 21 aggravated assaults. Attempts to reach management by phone and email were unsuccessful.

Other complexes rolled up additional complaints about code violations in the past two years, records show.

“The slumlords are dragging down the marketplace for other landlords, and they’re making them look bad,” said Michael Waller, executive director of Georgia Appleseed, which advocates to improve housing conditions for children. “They’re causing people to get motivated and organized.”

And across Georgia, high rents and a vanishing number of affordable homes continue to put strains on renters that can force them into dangerous, substandard housing.

Years of surging prices in metro Atlanta pushed typical rent about about 45% higher it was five years ago, according to estimates by Zillow.

Over a recent 10-year period, Georgia lost 159,000 units of affordable housing, even as the number of units renting for more than $2,000 a month tripled, according to 2023 data from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.

A Decatur resident looks into an apartment at The Village at Kensington in September 2022 where the windows are all broken out and trash litters the floor. Across Georgia, high rents and a vanishing number of affordable homes continue to put strains on renters. (Curtis Compton / Curtis Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Without legislation to strengthen conditions for renters, poor and working-class residents will continue to be pushed into unhealthy housing and away from neighborhoods with good jobs, schools and other opportunities to thrive, said Taylor Shelton, a Georgia State University housing expert.

“Anger and frustration is going to continue to grow in absence of anything meaningful being done,” Shelton said. “HB 404 is a step in the right direction, but it’s not nearly big enough of a step to get to what people really need.”

Wins and losses

In its current form, HB 404 is a hard-fought compromise, dealing wins and losses to its foes and supporters alike. It requires landlords to provide housing that is “fit for human habitation,” but leaves out language sought by housing advocates that would define what this means and establish recourses for tenants.

Without these provisions, it may take years for judges and local governments to sort out what tenants can legally to do protect themselves unscrupulous landlords, critics warn. Renters may also remain on the hook to pay rent when a landlord forces them to live with sewage spills or broken toilets.

“Anger and frustration is going to continue to grow in absence of anything meaningful being done. HB 404 is a step in the right direction, but it's not nearly big enough of a step to get to what people really need."

- Taylor Shelton, a Georgia State University housing expert

Another key victory for landlords is language that would allow them to evict tenants for failing to pay fees or utility bills.

“There are significant ways that we would like to see the legislation strengthened,” said Elizabeth Appley, a longtime lobbyist for groups that push for healthy housing. “In its current form it would be an important step forward.”

The proposal also would give tenants who are late on rent a three-day grace period before their landlords may file for eviction in court, which Georgia lacks. It also would cap security deposits at two months’ rent.

The powerful Georgia Apartment Association does not oppose the bill in its current form, a spokeswoman said. But this is no assurance that the bill will avoid hurdles during the upcoming legislative session.

In the waning hours of the 2023 session, a group of lawmakers led by state Sen. Colton Moore, R-Trenton, planned to introduce a floor amendment that would have sped up evictions.

This proposal may be dead. The GOP caucus suspended Moore after his failed call to convene a special session of the Legislature to investigate Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis. A spokeswoman for the apartment association said it did not request or back the planned amendment.

Still, the risk that opponents may derail the bill remains, said Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, who is carrying HB 404 in the Senate.

“I would say amendments would probably kill the bill,” Hufstetler said.

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