Landlord-legislators may hold fate of tenant protection bill

Real estate interest groups also can be a powerful influence at Legislature
An estimated one-quarter of all of the current members of Georgia’s General Assembly are residential landlords, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review, and may hold enough votes to decide whether the Legislature adopts meaningful protections for the state's renters. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

An estimated one-quarter of all of the current members of Georgia’s General Assembly are residential landlords, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review, and may hold enough votes to decide whether the Legislature adopts meaningful protections for the state's renters. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

On a cloudy winter day in the pines of Walton County, a panel of cardboard sat wedged behind a trailer’s broken windowpane to keep out the rain. Tarps covered roofs of other trailers, and dingy siding showed dents and dings.

These mobile homes with sun-bleached trim were some 50 years old and counting, but by all accounts from residents, living conditions couldn’t be better. At one trailer, a woman cracked open her door to tell a visitor that she liked her home.

“Everything works,” she said and pushed the door shut.

At another, a man answered questions through his screen door.

“Everything’s fine,” he said before retreating inside.

These trailers on the far eastern edge of metro Atlanta are among hundreds of residential properties owned or operated by the legislature’s residential landlords, a wide-ranging group that makes up an estimated one-quarter of all of the current members of Georgia’s General Assembly, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.

The legislative landlords include Republicans and Democrats; party leaders and backbenchers; mom-and-pop-operators; multifamily complex owners; and investors in large real estate companies, according to a Journal-Constitution review based on financial disclosures, real estate records and questions to legislators. Some hold real estate rentals as side gigs or as investments in diverse portfolios. Several own residential properties in neighboring states, while a handful hold rentals under the names of their spouses.

Rep. Bruce Williamson, R-Monroe, is among those who are full-time investors. In addition to the trailers with sun-bleached trim, the powerful majority caucus chairman owns more than 200 other Walton County homes, records show. These include single-family houses, several apartments and wooded acreage dotted with trailers, dozens of which are near or past the 50-years-old mark. During the past five years, his Williamson Rental Management filed more than 400 eviction cases in the local magistrate court.

State Rep. Bruce Williamson, R-Monroe, owns these trailers in Monroe, as well as more than 200 other Walton County homes, records show. During the past five years, his Williamson Rental Management filed more than 400 eviction cases in the local magistrate court. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

The political interests of these landlord lawmakers are diverse, but their sheer number hints at one reason that Georgia’s tenant protections remain among the nation’s weakest.

Combine these landlords with the deep pockets of Georgia’s real estate interest groups and their political influence is hard to match, said William Perry, a longtime ethics watchdog.

“You might have the most powerful punch in Georgia politics,” Perry said.

These landlords may hold enough votes to decide whether the General Assembly adopts meaningful protections for the 35% of Georgians who rent.

After two recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigations revealed deplorable conditions and harmful business practices in leased apartments and houses, top Republicans said they were backing a House bill that would for the first time require Georgia rentals to be “fit for human habitation.”

Tenant advocates said House Bill 404 would bring meaningful change. However some warn it does not give renters enough power to fight back against unscrupulous owners. The version passed unanimously in the House Thursday failed to specify any remedies for tenants trapped in unlivable homes or to say whether rentals need potable water, working toilets or other necessities to be habitable.

Worlds away

If Georgia’s General Assembly voted with public opinion, bills to strengthen renter protections would win by a landslide. Some 90% of respondents to a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll said the state should create laws that set minimum living requirements for rental properties.

The poll followed the publication of “Dangerous Dwellings,” an AJC investigation in 2022 that revealed dangerous conditions at hundreds of metro area apartment complexes owned by out-of-town private equity firms and other investors. Georgia’s tenant protection laws are so weak that these companies can skimp on health and safety concerns and quickly evict residents, the 18-month Journal-Constitution investigation found.

Many of these firms flip dilapidated apartments for millions of dollars more than they paid, leaving local police, code enforcement and prosecutors to sort through the mess they left behind. Combined, persistently dangerous complexes identified by the Journal-Constitution account for at least 281 homicides and 20,000 serious crimes over the past five years.

These apartments are worlds away from the Gold Dome, where many legislators who make money through real estate regularly vote on or sponsor bills that could impact their personal bottom lines.

In these marble halls, such dealings are not conflicts of interest. They’re proof of expertise.

State Sen. Greg Dolezal, who has invested in commercial, residential and student rentals, is sponsor of SB 186, the “Georgia Landowners Protection Act,” which would make it far more difficult for people injured on a property to sue its owner. In Georgia, lawsuits are a powerful recourse for tenants harmed as a result of poor living conditions or lax security.

While his business background led him to understand that Georgia’s laws must change to keep trial lawyers from going too far, Dolezal said, this does not add up to a conflict of interest.

“There’s that old saying, ‘Where you stand depends on where you sit,’” Dolezal said. “Your position depends on your view of the world and your background. But when there’s one piece of legislation I think I might profit from, I recuse from it.”

Realtor and State Rep. Dale Washburn, a Macon Republican, chaired months of 2022 hearings on the state’s affordable housing crisis. This session, he is sponsor of HB 517, which he said would lower costs by blocking cities and counties from requiring builders to construct large houses on big lots and to use higher-end design elements.

The head of his own real estate brokerage, Washburn holds fiduciary positions in firms that manage rentals, provide real estate consulting and auction property, recent financial disclosures show.

“I am honored to be recognized by a lot of our people as being somebody who is knowledgeable about real estate and housing issues,” Washburn said. “I do not see it as a conflict. We’re a part-time legislature. We have attorneys, doctors, people in the insurance business and funeral directors.”

Rep. Dale Washburn, R-Macon, is a Realtor and the sponsor of this session's HB 517, which he says would lower housing costs by blocking cities and counties from requiring builders to construct large houses on big lots and to use higher-end design elements. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

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Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

But few industries can outspend the real estate industry’s political war chest. During recent election filing cycles, the political action committee Realtors PAC reported $9.74 million in contributions, Georgia Campaign Finance Commission figures state.

Washburn was among the recipients. Last year for Valentine’s Day four Realtor lobbyists and a mining association representative reported spending more than $300 on a dinner for Washburn and his wife. The Georgia Association of Realtors PAC is one of his top campaign contributors, according to the commission.

Real estate agents make up only one block of the powerful real estate lobby, which includes apartment owners, property managers and homebuilders, as well as the bankers who finance their deals. While their interests may differ, they tend to line up on the side of landlords, not tenants, on housing legislation, said Georgia State University professor Dan Immergluck. They know they’ll have more power if they stick together, he said.

“They’re thick as thieves and have a lot of common membership,” Immergluck said.

‘Living hell’

While real estate industry groups have spent decades building their power in the legislature, healthy housing struggled to gain traction. Atlanta’s civil rights leaders let the cause of tenant rights take a back seat to voting and desegregation. Until the racial reckoning of 2020, charitable foundations based in the South balked at supporting tenant unions and other renter rights organizers, unlike their northern counterparts, said Immergluck.

Many tenant rights bills are sponsored by Democrats and don’t come up for a hearing, much less a vote, in the Republican-dominated General Assembly. Those that do stall under opposition. A 2021 bill that would have required apartments to post crime statistics on their websites won in the House after gaining support from key law enforcement but never came up for a vote in the Senate.

Georgia’s sole successful tenant protection bill in decades passed in 2019 only after a grinding 18 hours in committee meetings. The bill barred landlords from retaliating against tenants who report substandard conditions.

There were so many landlords in the legislature that bill sponsor State Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, worried it would fail — but not necessarily because of “no” votes.

“They're thick as thieves and have a lot of common membership."

- Georgia State University professor Dan Immergluck, on combined power of the real estate lobby and landlords

Legislators may be excused from voting on a bill in which they have a conflict of interest, but unless the legislation solely benefits a member’s business, there is no bar to voting. As voting began in the House of Representatives, so many asked to be excused that Cooper worried there would be no quorum.

“I thought, ‘this is the way they’re going to kill the bill’,” said Cooper, who owns a condo that she has rented out. Fifteen members were excused in the bill’s final House vote.

Rep. Williamson, the Walton County landlord, did not ask to be excused. He voted “no” twice: first on an early House version, then on a weaker bill that passed in the Senate. He declined interview requests for this story.

State Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, sponsored a successful tenant protection bill in 2019. The bill, which barred landlords from retaliating against tenants who report substandard conditions, was weakened in the Senate before it passed. (Hyosub Shin / AJC 2020 photo)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Housing advocates hold the passage of the anti-retaliation bill as a victory, but tenants who stand up to landlords who refuse to make repairs continue to face harassment and eviction, the Journal-Constitution’s “Dangerous Dwellings” investigation found.

Former Williamson Rental Management tenant Brian Sanford remains angry that he had to complain for six months before repairs were made to a septic tank that leaked fecal matter into his backyard, and that the kitchen plumbing flooded three times, causing mold to grow.

Then in April 2021, when he fell $1,042 behind on rent after contracting COVID-19 and pneumonia, Williamson’s management company tried to evict him. Sanford said he had already been approved for federal rental assistance.

Williamson’s company filed against Sanford during a temporary Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moratorium on evictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In October, after the moratorium had ended, the company filed for eviction again.

“They made my life a living hell,” Sanford said. Tired of fighting, Sanford left Walton County.

Compassionate conservatism

This legislative session, a newly reelected Gov. Brian Kemp, himself a landlord, is turning away from culture wars toward “kitchen table issues,” and top Republican lawmakers are backing modest gains in tenant protections.

Washburn is looking into imposing liens to pay for repairs that landlords refuse to make, while House Speaker John Burns last month announced his backing for HB 404, which responds to problems chronicled in “Dangerous Dwellings.”

“My whole mantra since I’ve been down here is about showing that Republicans can have compassion, and this bill does that,” said sponsor State Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton, who owns commercial real estate. Its co-sponsors include Williamson and Cooper.

State Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton, is co-sponsoring HB 404 this session, which its backers say would increase tenant protections. The bill was recently strengthened after tenants’ rights advocates pushed to strip out a certain provisions that would have benefitted apartment owners. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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During recent hearings before the House Judiciary Committee, the lobbying arm for apartment owners pushed to keep the act as it was originally drafted. But tenants’ rights advocates successfully pushed to strip out a provision that would speed up evictions for tenants accused of a crime even before they’re convicted, and to lower the limit on security deposits to two months’ rent, down from the original three.

Rep. Trey Kelley, R-Cedartown, said the bill answers a longstanding need.

“We’ve certainly seen bad actors in the landlord part of the equation,” Kelley said. “And I think there’s some very much common sense things that we can do to help crack down on those bad actors.”

Kelley added that he is a landlord.

AJC staff writers Johnny Edwards and Shannon McCaffrey contributed to this report.