Louisiana’s relatively lax landlord-tenant laws arguably need to be revisited, but a new proposal in the state legislature tilts the scales too far in favor of tenants who breach their obligations.
In late February, Louisiana State Senator Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb filed Senate Bill 298, which includes a laundry list of revisions to the laws governing residential leases. The centerpiece is a non-waivable 30-day eviction notice period for all evictions, regardless of grounds. Under existing law, a tenant may be evicted with five days notice, although this notice may be waived by agreement of the landlord and tenant in the lease.
David Zisser of the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law was quoted in the Times-Picayune opining that the change would bring Louisiana in line with the policies of the majority of states.
This is not the case.
Although many states do have a thirty day eviction notice provision, these provisions only apply to leases that are terminated for no specified reason. Such evictions are uncommon. As one would expect, most evictions are for nonpayment of rent or specific violations of the lease agreement. It is rare for landlords to evict good tenants.
Accordingly, in the vast majority of states, evictions for nonpayment of rent require only a very brief notice period, normally between three and seven days (depending on the particular state). Evictions for breaches of other lease obligations sometimes have a slightly longer notice period, usually between five and 10 days.
I am not aware of any state that requires thirty days notice for all evictions. I would be shocked if there was one because it’s a blatantly bad policy.
When a tenant fails to pay rent or commits a serious breach of the lease, a landlord is well-justified in demanding that the tenant leave as soon as possible. Landlords have bills associated with the property that they have to pay. If a tenant’s rent is going towards a mortgage payment (including taxes and insurance) the bank won’t sympathize if the landlord cannot pay because his tenants stiffed him and cannot be evicted in a timely fashion.
In the same vein, if a tenant is essentially destroying the apartment, he probably shouldn’t be given an additional 30 days to finish the job. In fact, the tenant probably shouldn’t receive any significant notice at all.
It would have been far more reasonable to make the existing five day notice provision non-waivable, and provide a truncated notice provision for emergency evictions. That way, tenants could not sign away their right to notice, and landlords would be able to do more rapid evictions in cases where a tenant’s conduct needs to be addressed immediately.
Alas, therein lies the chronic fatal flaw in Dorsey-Colomb’s bill. It combines good ideas with bad ones, and ultimately fails to strike a reasonable compromise between the competing interests of tenants and landlords.
Other provisions in SB 298 are actually quite reasonable. Dorsey-Colomb proposes, for example, to increase the penalty for landlords to illegally retain security deposits to pay a penalty of up to twice the amount of the deposit. The current penalty is only $200, which is widely regarded as inadequate to stem the epidemic of landlords making bank on funds illegally retained.
However, SB 298 would also reduce the amount of time to refund the deposit to 14 days from 30, which is a very brief window for landlords to assess damage and receive estimates for repairs. It further requires all landlords to keep security deposits in a separate bank account. Although this may make some sense for landlords who rent several units, it places a needless burden on small properties like the archetypical New Orleans shotgun double in which the owner lives in one side and rents out the other.
While Louisiana’s present landlord-tenant laws are at least arguably too favorable to landlords, the situation will not be solved by SB 298, which invites abuse by tenants. The 30-day notice provision is the most radical and egregious example.
Instead of a comprehensive reform bill that reeks of grandstanding, the focus needs to be on individual reforms. A bill to make the five day notice provision non-waivable would be reasonable and stand a decent chance of being passed. A bill including a significant increase in the penalties for illegally withholding a security deposit might also garner support in Baton Rouge.
SB 298, however, is a complete non-starter. Accordingly, I agree with John Radziewicz , who told the Times-Picayune, “I don’t think this has a prayer.”
Even those sympathetic to the idea of reform of residential lease laws need to acknowledge that SB 298 includes too many changes and too many of them are wrong. I’ll be glad to see it fail, but more importantly, I’ll be hopeful that more reasonable reforms can emerge in the future.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.