Bill to strengthen tenant protections passes Ga. Senate committee

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

A bill that would for the first time require Georgia landlords to provide housing that is “fit for human habitation” passed unanimously in the state Senate Judiciary Committee Monday evening.

Should the current version of House Bill 404 become law, it would be one of the state’s most significant statewide boosts for tenant protections in decades. Legislators have routinely sided with landlords, placing Georgia’s rental protections behind those in most states.

As written, the Safe at Home Act may not give tenants key protections that they need to fight back against unscrupulous landlords, experts said. Still, housing advocates who testified before the Judiciary Committee expressed their support for the bill, calling it a meaningful step toward making housing safe and decent for families.

It’s too easy for landlords to leave their tenants in substandard conditions, said attorney Cole Thaler of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, which represents renters battling poor living conditions.

“The reasons why a tenant might sign a lease and move into an uninhabitable property boil down to desperation, lack of options and poverty,” Thaler said. “Many of these clients make the agonizing decision that a roof full of holes is better than no roof over their head at all.”

Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton, introduced HB 404 in response to “Dangerous Dwellings,” an 18-month investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that showed tens of thousands of metro area renters living in perilous 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.

HB 404 has the backing of House Speaker Jon Burns, R-Newington, and won the House unanimously March 2 to a standing ovation. The bill has until March 29, the last day of this year’s legislative session, to be approved by the full Senate.

In addition to requiring a rental be habitable, the bill provides tenants who fail to pay rent a three-day grace period before their landlords may file for eviction in court. It also caps security deposits at two months’ worth of rent.

The current version does not describe what actions tenants may take if their landlord refuses to make repairs, or define what “fit for human habitation” means

During Monday’s committee meeting, an amendment by State Sen. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, to raise the bill’s cap on security deposits from two months rent to three failed 5-4 after opposition from committee leadership.

Vice Chairman State Sen. Bill Cowsert, who led the meeting while its chairman testified elsewhere, cast the deciding vote.

“I’m not going to interfere with a hard-fought compromise,” said Cowsert, R-Athens.