Credit: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

'Not outright illegal'

A standard lease shows how landlords force tenants to sign away their rights

Georgia law gives tenants few protections against unscrupulous owners. Some landlords want to strip away more.

A lease can be their most powerful tool, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.

Renters have little if any leverage to negotiate unfair terms, especially if they’re on a tight budget. Application, reservation and credit check fees totaling $175 or more are commonplace. If potential tenants don’t sign, they lose their money and must pay more fees to apply at a different apartment complex.

As rents below $1,200 a month grow scarce, tenants end up agreeing to terms that many would find outrageous. Consider this lease, which a local family signed with a national landlord run by a New York private equity firm. Four local housing law experts reviewed it and agreed it was one of the worst they have ever seen.

“What’s horrible about it is it’s not outright illegal,” said Atlanta attorney Wingo Smith, who worked for years with tenants living in federally subsidized housing.

By lobbyists, for lobbyists

Credit: Georgia Apartment Association

Credit: Georgia Apartment Association

This lease is 65 pages long and has 20 addenda, including two on crime. The owner cobbled it together from forms published by the Georgia Apartment Association, an influential industry lobbying group, which makes them available on its website for members to purchase.

Forms from the state group use intricate legal language that requires tenants to sign away the rights that state and federal laws provide them, experts told the AJC.

Judges often allow them to keep those rights if they sue. But without advice from a lawyer, tenants may not know this.

“It’s a bullying tactic,” said Lindsey Siegel, an attorney with Atlanta Legal Aid. “I think it’s designed to make tenants think that they have fewer rights than they have.”

The Georgia Apartment Association said in a statement that the leases are vetted by legal consultants and are in accordance with state law.

‘Ordinary care’

Credit: Georgia Apartment Association

Credit: Georgia Apartment Association

State law does not require landlords to disclose crimes that take place on their properties, but it does say they must exercise “ordinary care” to prevent foreseeable criminal acts. For instance, they must provide functioning locks, Rogers said.

But this lease can give tenants the impression that no such legal protections exist.

“I’m sure there have been many people … who believed they were prohibited from bringing a lawsuit and never did,” said Andrew Rogers, whose firm, Deitch & Rogers, specializes in suits by crime victims against property owners.

“They’re pushing the envelope and becoming more and more emboldened in their efforts to basically not be held accountable for the things that they know they’re not doing correctly — the things that are leaving their tenants open to be shot, stabbed and raped,” Rogers added.

Not their fault

Credit: Georgia Apartment Association

Credit: Georgia Apartment Association

Avoiding responsibility is a recurring theme. Tenants at multiple complexes across metro Atlanta routinely complain to the Journal-Constitution about ruined clothes, shoes and furniture due to malfunctioning air-conditioning units, sewage spills or improperly functioning doors and windows. Georgia law allows them to sue their landlords for damages. But the above provision requires the renter to agree that the apartment’s owners are not on the hook.

Verdict: homelessness

Tenants who complain about conditions risk becoming homeless. The below set of provisions states that they can be evicted for writing a negative online review of the apartment or talking to a journalist. They may also lose their homes if they organize to fight unsafe and unsanitary conditions, an activity that is protected under a 2019 Georgia law, notes Smith. Tenants often share their concerns through petitions and flyers, and this lease gives landlords wide latitude to label these activities as lease violations:

Credit: Georgia Apartment Association

Credit: Georgia Apartment Association

And in this provision, a tenant must agree that he or she can be evicted if code enforcement cites management for creating unsafe or unsanitary conditions. They also face homelessness for water intrusion or mold, without regard to who is at fault:

Credit: Georgia Apartment Association

Credit: Georgia Apartment Association

Signing this lease also means you agree to lose your home for crimes you may not have committed. The below provision specifies that management does not have to wait for a charging decision by prosecutors, much less a conviction.

There’s even room for landlords to evict a tenant for an arrest that took place years ago:

Credit: Georgia Apartment Association

Credit: Georgia Apartment Association

An additional bedbug addendum poses threats to health and sanitation, Smith said. It requires a tenant to agree that his or her family may be evicted if an infestation takes place in their unit, regardless of whether they caused it:

Credit: Georgia Apartment Association

Credit: Georgia Apartment Association

If a landlord evicts, the bedbugs are liable to end up wherever the tenants seek emergency shelter, whether it be their car, a relative’s home or a homeless shelter.

“From a public health standpoint, that’s really dangerous,” Smith notes.

Like Netflix, maybe worse

Credit: Georgia Apartment Association

Credit: Georgia Apartment Association

It can be hard for anyone who lacks detailed knowledge of housing law to realize that they are signing away their rights. For instance, the above provision says that the lease renews automatically, much like a subscription to Netflix or a magazine. The problem is that under Georgia law, landlords are supposed to give 60 days’ notice for rent increases. In this lease, once a renewal takes place, that notice is only 15 days.

Goodbye, Rover

Other provisions intrude deep into family life. This one allows managers to enter your apartment at any time to take your pet away if they decide that it is “distressed.”

Credit: Georgia Apartment Association

Credit: Georgia Apartment Association

This one requires tenants to allow their children and other family members to be photographed for use in apartment marketing, without compensation:

Credit: Georgia Apartment Association

Credit: Georgia Apartment Association

No shelter

Credit: Georgia Apartment Association

Credit: Georgia Apartment Association

The above section requires tenants to give up federal consumer protections that the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and the Telephone Communications Protection Act of 1991 provide for them. Their landlord may report an inaccurate amount to a debt collector and can call their families, friends and employers to tell them about it, Smith said

“There’s spectrum between debt collection and somebody with a lead pipe hitting your knees or hitting the knees of your loved ones,” Smith said. “This falls further on the latter side than the former.”

Together, these provisions are an attempt by landlords to arm-twist their way towards bigger profits, Siegel said.

“They’re doing the most they think they can get away with,” said Siegel. “And up until now they have typically gotten away with it.”