Advocates worry tenant protection bill lacks teeth

Rep. Kasey Carpenter (R-Dalton) talks about the tenant protection bill on day 27 of the legislative on March 2,  2023. The bill passed the House and is expected to be taken up by the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Rep. Kasey Carpenter (R-Dalton) talks about the tenant protection bill on day 27 of the legislative on March 2, 2023. The bill passed the House and is expected to be taken up by the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take up a bill Monday that would for the first time require that Georgia landlords provide rentals that are “fit for human habitation.”

Legislators have weighed in on the side of landlords for decades, placing Georgia behind most of the nation in tenant protections. The proposal before the Senate would be a meaningful step forward, advocates say. They have fought for decades to change state law to require that properties be habitable.

But they warn that the proposal lacks key provisions that could protect renters against dangerous, unhealthy conditions. The version that passed the House unanimously on March 2 does not specify what the term “fit for human habitation” means, and it lays out no recourse for tenants living in unfit conditions.

Without these provisions, it will 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, as they are under current law.

“I don’t think there’s any good reason to not support it in its current form,” said Taylor Shelton, a Georgia State University housing expert and volunteer for the Housing Justice League advocacy group. “But I don’t think that anybody is under the illusion that this is actually going to meaningfully reshape the balance of power between landlords and tenants in Georgia.”

Top Republicans introduced House Bill 404 in response to “Dangerous Dwellings,” an 18-month investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that showed tens of thousands of metro Atlanta renters living in horrific conditions while apartment owners flipped the properties for millions more than they purchased them.

Landlords ignored complaints of roaches, mold, rats and raw sewage spills or persistent 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.

Combined, these complexes account for at least 281 homicides and 20,000 serious crimes over the past five years, the AJC found.

House Speaker Jon Burns, R-Newington, backs the bill, which won that chamber to a standing ovation. Sponsor Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton, says that the bill implies that tenants may break their leases if they experience unlivable conditions. If a landlord takes them to court, they can use documentation collected while they were tenants to convince a judge that their rental was not fit to live in.

Georgia Speaker of the House Jon Burns, center, supports House Bill 404, which would require that Georgia landlords provide rentals that are “fit for human habitation.” However, advocates note that the phrase is not well defined in the bill's current form.  (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

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Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

But unless the law sets forth what conditions count as habitable and what actions tenants can take, renters would remain vulnerable to a patchwork system, subject to different laws and rules from one jurisdiction to the next, said Elizabeth Appley, a longtime lobbyist and housing advocate who supports the bill. Revisions could prevent confusion and improve the lives of the more than one third of Georgians who rent their homes.

“We know that without decent safe and affordable housing that you know, children can’t succeed in school, and parents can’t work and families can’t be healthy,” Appley said. “The impact of housing is profound. It’s the foundation that all of us build our lives on.”

HB 404 also gives tenants a three-day grace period before landlords may file for an eviction in court for failing to pay rent. Housing experts hoped for a week-long grace period, which would give tenants a more realistic chance at paying up, and is more in-line with the law in other states, they said.

Bill provisions that would have expedited evictions for those accused of certain crimes died in the House. Those provisions were opposed by housing advocates but were supported by the apartment industry.

Advocates aim to push forward the cause of tenant rights in the coming years.

“I think we’re all just hoping that this is the first of many future steps at strengthening tenant protections across the state,” Shelton said.

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