Guest column: What’s good for renters is good for New Orleans

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Kate Scott

Kate Scott

By Kate Scott, Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center

New Orleans has a troubling legacy to overcome when it comes to the condition of its rental homes, even though more than half the City’s residents are renters. Such conditions have wide-ranging effects on everything from health to educational outcomes. Many renters find themselves having to move because they can’t get dangerous housing conditions addressed. When people have to move a lot, neighborhood stability goes down and so does public safety.

In a City where rents have skyrocketed beyond the reach of many working families, New Orleans renters deserve assurances that the homes they live in meet basic standards of quality and safety. A rental registry program would be good for New Orleans and can be designed in a way that is not overly cumbersome for the many landlords in the City that are just trying to do the right thing.

Poor conditions in New Orleans rental homes — and the lack of recourse that renters have when they face bad conditions — are well documented, most recently in a report released by a wide swath of organizations working to improve New Orleans housing outcomes. For years, poor conditions in rental homes have been one of the most common complaints we’ve heard about at the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. We also frequently hear from renters that are facing eviction after having brought concerns about things like mold and rodent infestations in their homes to the attention of their landlords. Calls to 311 about these problems go completely ignored.

The problems are so pervasive that we decided to bring them to the attention of our City’s leaders. We appreciate the leadership of Councilmembers Williams and Cantrell in studying the scope of the problem and being prepared to act in resolving it.

If properly designed, the idea of a rental registry is the best solution to address the challenges that both landlords and tenants face in New Orleans when it comes to complying with basic standards of health and safety as detailed in the City’s code. State law does not protect tenants from retaliation when they complain about conditions in rental homes, so relying on a solely complaint-based system, even if it is improved upon, will not cut it.

Recently stated concerns about the potential program are puzzling in light of the fact that legislation has not actually been introduced. In a demonstration of leadership and accountability to the community, Councilwoman Cantrell agreed to delay introduction of an ordinance that would establish the registry once some of her colleagues and a group of landlords raised concerns about the process. We are confident that our City’s leaders can work together to design a program that works for New Orleans.

Currently, corner stores are regulated more strictly than one of the most important assets in our community: rental homes. New Orleans deserves better. Concerns about over-regulation are important to consider, but should not prohibit us from acting to ensure that the health and safety of our City’s residents is adequately protected. A well-designed rental registry program is good for renters, easy for landlords, and best for New Orleans.

GNOFHAC_blue_logo-300x119Kate Scott is the assistant director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.

50 thoughts on “Guest column: What’s good for renters is good for New Orleans

  1. I heard Councilmember Cantrell talk about this today at the event sponsored by The Lens. As with any regulation there will be pros and cons, winners and losers, but she sounded sincere in her desire to achieve the greatest good with the least harm.

    A key point is what properties will be included and which excluded. It sounds like duplex homes where the owner lives in one part and rents out the other will be exempt. That’s going to be an important point to make since there are many homeowners who rent out a part of their properties and who will not want to get caught up in the same regulations as those who own and rent mulitple properties as a full-time business.

    Peace,
    Tim

  2. Seems like a very good plan for the city. As we will remove more low income housing from the city, much of our dysfunctional population will be dispersed to other communities making New Orleans more viable for the functional.

    • jexni,

      I think that’s an awful way of looking at it (using regulation to force out the poor) but yeah, I think that’s a major part of the goal here. They want to do to New Orleans what was done with Charleston, bit by bit.

      • I don’t know what the motivation of Katie and her ilk is, but they are the ones apparently intent on driving out low income housing. But I suspect they actually think they can by regulation increase the cost of the service and not increase the price to the consumer. Perhaps they look at the 300K apartments and town homes being created for the dysfunctional by the government and think private landlords can do the same?

    • Do you mean that, or is the intention sarcastic provocation?

      So you think the (possibly) unintended consequence of a tenants’ protection law is that landlords will clean up substandard accommodation and raise the rent, so the slumlord victim tenant will have to move to a place that does not have the protection law, to be victimized by another slumlord? If you mean it face value, then you are advocating ethnic cleansing by statute instead of gun. And yours is one of the most disgusting pseudonymous comments I have seen anywhere, including neo-nazi nightmares like Newsmax.

  3. >>State law does not protect tenants from retaliation when they complain about conditions in rental homes, so relying on a solely complaint-based system, even if it is improved upon, will not cut it.<>Recently stated concerns about the potential program are puzzling in light of the fact that legislation has not actually been introduced.<<

    If expressing concerns is so "puzzling," then why is the Fair Housing Action Center making an effort to defend it? Clearly there's a proposal on the table. There's something to critique and debate. The problem here is that Cantrell and the Fair Housing Action Center attempted to sneak this through without any input from landlords. Heck, it's worse than that — Head basically accused Cantrell of sandbagging the City Council.

    It's good that Cantrell realized her mistake and pulled back, but that doesn't change the fact that this has been horribly mishandled. You can expect a lot of push-back from that.

    • Owen,

      I agree with you on this. As a veteran
      landlord of 10 years, I believe landlords are already under strains of increasing expenses through water rates going up each year and the ever escalating property taxes, not to mention insurance on all their properties. While I do recognize the intent of this proposed program,
      I cannot abide by implementing a program that adds fiscal burden to good landlords.

      I would think that enforcing existing
      codes to begin with would be the clear place to start rather than pumping up some new bureaucratic money engine that will only lead to increased overhead for landlords who will ultimately pass that along to tenants. I can easily see this leading to new “application fees” to be levied on prospective tenants. You thought renting was
      expensive, now its going to cost just to look for an apartment.

      • Property values are skyrocketing in New Orleans. These pressures you mention facing landlords are trivial compared to the burdens imposed upon hospitality workers who must complete with renters from other cities who willingly pay far above one thousand per month. The imaginary government “red tape” manufactured by the right wing conspiracy loons on this thread makes me laugh. New Orleans really has no government. It regulates very little compared to other cities. It destroyed its public housing. This city really and state have become a right wing fantasy though of course we could not have reached that point without foot soldiers like yourself spreading destructive propaganda.

    • How can you say that Louisiana’s Landlord Tenant law protects renters? My neighbors had their water and electricity cut off by their landlord. The intent was to displace them for new tenants who are paying $300 more per month. They were living in a property which had a leaky roof and no locks on the front door. It was not up to code yet the landlord thought they could get away with anything. In New Orleans landlords have all of the power. If you’re a renter then you effectively have no rights. Don’t believe the reactionaries criticizing this much needed proposal.

      • Reactionaries! ROFLMAO How is someone supporting the status quo a reactionary? And a rental contract is a bilateral agreement, no one is forcing a tenant to rent from a bad landlord or one that wants to protect his assets. There are rights and obligations on both sides of the contract.

  4. If city council chooses to make another money grab, there should be zero exceptions: owner-occupied duplexes, hotels, homeless shelters should all be monitored. I would even say why stop there: Go check every single family house in the city to make sure they have adequate living conditions also. No house left behind!!! As gov’t imposed violations arise, this will likely reduce the number of housing units (on the lower end) causing a further housing shortage for the ones that need it most. And who do you think will pay these inspection fees? The landlord will just pass it on to the renters further increasing rents.

    • Everything that Mr. Scrooge hates becomes “tax.” These must also include aircraft safety regulations, food inspections, drug trials, and seat belts. Where do we sign up to live in such libertarian dystopia?

  5. You obviously have a flair for the dramatic but no understanding of ethnic cleansing or the rental market. Take your complaint up with Katie, she is the one supporting this “statutory ethnic cleansing”.

  6. I’m sure that when the homeowner occupies the same property, the condition of that property is better than average. And when maintenance is required, a knock on the door next door is going to be more effective than a phone call to a landlord who lives miles away. So from that point of view, there is little problem of sub-standard housing when the owner is also a resident. The ordinance should taget where the problem lies.

    • Tim,

      First of all, I disagree with your premise. A lot of people own double shotguns and do minimum maintenance taking care of the other side that they rent out.

      Secondly, a “knock on the door next door” isn’t even necessarily allowed — the lease could prohibit direct contact for maintenance issues, or it could be contracted out to a third party (the latter was actually the situation with the first apartment I rented in New Orleans).

      Thirdly, if we want to take your premise further, the law could exempt all apartment buildings owned by large management firms, since those tend to have dedicated superintendents that take care of maintenance on an ongoing basis, and the units are regularly renovated as-needed. Or we could just exempt any building with a designated on-site maintenance person, because after all, it’s not like they’re “a few miles away.”

      Why doesn’t the law exempt those people, then? It’s because it’s a tax. It’s not trying to exempt housing that’s unlikely to be a “problem,” it’s trying to exempt small fish would would be more expensive to regulate and would have trouble paying. They just don’t see any profit in going after the homeowner with a single rental unit.

      • Owen, There are many examples of regulations that exempt small businesses it even family-run businesses from regulations. I am not suggesting anything radical here. Owen, There are many examples of regulations that exempt small businesses it even family-run businesses from regulations. I am not suggesting anything radical here.

        If we look at your example of large property owners being more responsible landlords, I would still say it is more likely you will find the vast majority of sub standard housing is owned and operated by people who manage properties purely for profit as opposed to someone who actually resides in the building. I’d be curious to see some statistics on this but I know this to be true from my own experience.

        You seem to want to characterize this purely as a tax and I certainly understand how some disdain all government nowadays. I firmly believe there is a problem with sub standard housing that the market has already failed to resolve. That’s why a government solution in the form of regulation is needed.

        • The housing market is the purest form of capitalism where those at the bottom get the worst or nothing. New Orleans has an extremely tight housing market while it’s also the second most unequal city in America. We do not have to tolerate these outcomes. We – acting collectively through our government – are obligated to protect those who are being exploited by profit-seeking landlords. Property owners are doing quite well in New Orleans given the dramatic appreciation of their capital. Latoya Cantrell and the City of New Orleans should take decisive action, now.

        • Tim,

          There is a problem with substandard rental housing, but there’s also a problem with affordable rental housing. Mass inspections simply aren’t a proper solution; it reeks of wanting to create a revenue stream rather than actually deal with known problem landlords directly.

          • Tim,

            I addressed it a bit in my last column. What I suggested is that we need better reactive enforcement; i.e, code enforcement needs to respond adequately to major complaints. I wouldn’t have inspections or a registry; just a number tenants can call when the ceiling is caving in and their landlord won’t do anything.

            I’ve also bandied about other ideas in my head. For example, state law allows tenants to withhold rent to make necessary repairs when they aren’t made in a reasonable time after notice to the landlord, but most tenants aren’t aware of either this or their other rights under state law. The city could require all landlords to give a small pamphlet to all new tenants giving a brief overview of landlord/tenant law.

            The city could also lobby for some minor changes in state law. Increasing the penalties for illegally withholding deposits will ferret out some bad landlords, but they could also add penalties for other bad behavior — like adding statutory penalties if a tenant has to move because of a refusal of a landlord to make necessary repairs. The threat of litigation is a strong deterrent.

            That’s just a taste of what else you could do besides a rental registry and mass inspections, which frankly strikes me as the worst “solution” to the problem.

          • “The threat of litigation is a strong deterrent.”

            Are you waiting to represent these poor clients? No.

            Did the threat of litigation deter BP from cutting corners and polluting the gulf? No.

            Will the threat of litigation stop Wall Street from yet again committing fraud? No.

            Your proposals place onerous financial burdens upon the indigent who should rather be protected by an activist local government that enforces human living standards! Unless government sets rules and actively enforces them there will be abuse. The poorest among us will not find redress given costs associated with accessing the judicial system.

          • Owen, Make repairs yourself, threaten litigation… Those are all solutions for people with money and means. We’re not talking about how to help people with money and means. We’re talking about tenants in the worst of conditions because they can’t afford better. We’re talking about helping people living in the edge. The solution for them is a proactive system that establishes, inspects and enforces basic standards. Think of food as an example. We don’t wait for people to get sick to inspect butcher shops and restaurants. it happens regularly and automatically.

          • Tim,

            No, with revisions to state law providing for higher penalties, attorneys will be more willing to take on tenancy cases on contingency. That makes it different from a rich person’s remedy. As for making repairs yourself, if you can use rent to make repairs the money is obviously there. Again, not a rich person’s remedy.

            A “proactive system” is simply not needed here. This isn’t like restaurants where bad conditions exist behind the scenes in the kitchen — the problems here are front and center; tenants are generally aware of the problems with their own apartments and can report them. Reactive enforcement is the most efficient means.

          • “…attorneys will be more willing to take on tenancy cases on contingency.” I find this to be a laughable suggestion. In fact, I put the question to the Twitterverse and they all laughed, too. Experienced lawyers included.

          • Tim,

            It’s not laughable. It’s undeniably true. If you add more potential recovery at the end of the day, there’s more skin on the bone and more willingness for lawyers to take these cases on contingency. And they can still be filed in small claims court which has highly truncated procedures and a low filing file.

            One more thing: If you don’t have an argument but instead prefer mockery without substance, I’d suggest you go elsewhere. Your last comment was just plain vapid, the equivalent of saying: “I find your suggestion comical but I won’t say why; and btw my buddies on Twitter agree with me but I won’t say why either.” That’s just pathetic.

          • I do have an argument: your assertion that lawyers are willing to take on tenant issues on contingency is absurd, unsubstantiated and laughable. Please give me the name of an attorney who will take a case like this right now.
            My larger argument is that going to court to sue is not a remedy for poor people. That only works when there are deep enough pockets involved and tort law that will allow awards large enough to both pay the victim and the lawyer. Not seeing that in this instance.

          • Owen,

            Here you squarely hit the nail on the head, enforce codes already in existence and “a number tenants can call when the ceiling is caving in and their landlord won’t do anything.”

            The latter is where the bad landlords can be actively targeted without making all the good landlords pay the tab. I think you are well on your way to drafting a better bit of legislation to remedy the problem that the currently proposed program is so hamfistedly poorly trying to do.

  7. The City should inspect ALL homes and buildings. If the inspection misses anything and someone gets hurt, it’s time to call your attorney. I’m sure the City will use some of the new fees to compensate the home owners with faulty inspections. This could be a real money maker for the poor folks who really need the help….call your council member…Now!

    • Why would the city share any of its revenue with landlords that can’t maintain their rental properties? Why would you be certain of something so absurd?

  8. Douglas,

    A regulatory scheme that requires landlords to provide higher-quality housing and forces them to register and pay for regular inspections will result in a market that has less low-cost housing. In a market like New Orleans, that’s going wind up forcing out the poor, who are predominantly minorities.

    Yes, “ethnic cleansing” is a bit of an inflammatory exaggeration, but it’s a bit difficult not to resort to extreme language when you’re dealing with the same policies that cities like Charleston to undergo drastic demographic changes in a short period. These are people who recognize that it’s easier to attract the rich than to accommodate the poor, and so they’re pushing the former and doing none of the latter.

    • “Regulatory schemes” ended slavery, child labor, and gave women the vote.

      We could have rent control.

      We could also raise the minimum wage.

      Both of these proposals would address the economic strangulation experienced by those living at the bottom of our society.

  9. Douglas,

    >>New Orleans really has no government.<<

    You're delusional. New Orleans has onerous zoning restrictions, mandatory licensing of all businesses, local historic districts that regulate even basic maintenance work, massive incarceration levels that include large numbers of inmates accused of petty offenses — we have all of this, and you have the temerity, the unrestrained gall, to claim that we have "no government?"

    The City of New Orleans is run by liberal Democrats. You won't find a single person of another political persuasion on the city council or in the Mayor's office. The idea that is is some "right wing fantasy" requires such addled thinking that it's difficult to even know where to start. It's just bizarre.

    • “New Orleans has onerous zoning restrictions, mandatory licensing of all businesses, local historic districts that regulate even basic maintenance work”

      So do many other cities in our nation unless Houston stands as your model place. Libertarians who hate government will not be satisfied until the leviathan has been entirely destroyed so they inflate its presence in order to attack its manufactured influence. You cannot starve the beast until you at first scare the public with nightmares of its many crimes.

      “The City of New Orleans is run by liberal Democrats. You won’t find a single person of another political persuasion on the city council or in the Mayor’s office.”

      The Real Estate Development and Tourism Industries control New Orleans City Hall. The professed liberals on Perdido privatized public services, dismantled public housing, and are going after public sector pensions. We do not need the GOP in City Hall as the Democrats have gone so far to the right already – thanks in part to the echo chamber of delusional people like yourself who hold we have some insanely invasive government. In fact we have a government that does everything possible to support industry at the expense of working people. You can spin positive safeguards like rental inspections if that validates your warped interpretation of reality. Those of us who rent welcome these progressive steps forward. We vote and will lobby for these safeguards!

  10. Douglas,

    Louisiana landlord/tenant law allows tenants to withhold rent to offset money used for necessary repairs that the landlord refused or failed to perform in a timely fashion. Leaks in the roof or a missing lock are things that tenants can repair themselves and offset out of future rent. A tenant could also sue for breach of the lease in small claims court. The idea that tenants have absolutely no recourse and no rights is simply not true.

    That said, I have never claimed that Louisiana law was completely adequate with respect to tenant’s rights — I would personally add higher statutory penalties for unlawfully withholding a security deposit and create other penalties for various unlawful acts by landlords to deter the type of behavior you describe. However, what I would not do is waste resources on a mass inspection scheme designed to fund a new bureaucracy.

    • Why are tenants obligated to improve property which they do not own? It should already be in an orderly state!

      Suing the landlord places the burden upon the tenant. We have government to keep exploitive landlords in line. Poor tenants who work multiple jobs and can barely pay rent should not have to hire a lawyer which they cannot afford. Why are you asking my neighbors – the majority of which make under 25K annually – to hire a lawyer? Why should they have to use a vacation day they don’t have to appear in court! They pay their taxes and should expect the government to provide services! One of these services must be rental inspections!

  11. Douglas,
    First off, skyrocketing property values is only beneficial if you are selling said property, otherwise the only other side effect is that taxes are increased as property value increases. So to say that increasing property values benefits landlords is quite absurd. The real estate agents are the ones that benefit from “skyrocketing property values”. Furthermore if you insurance company gets wind of escalating property values, then your policy premiums also go up as the replacement cost has gone up.

    Now, about paying over one thousand a month, how many bedrooms and bathrooms are you talking about, dose it have central air, or off street parking, is the water paid by the landlord? seems you like to toss about vague generalizations to me, rather than speak of actual real numbers and concrete fact.

    It would seem to me that by your tone you probably don’t have to deal with much government “red tape” in regards to property ownership which implies that you probably rent. So before you spout off about what property owners have to deal with it would behoove you to perhaps “walk a mile in our shoes” before you run your mouth.

    As far as what the city regulates, it has much on the books to regulate, the city just chooses not to, or cannot afford to do it. I think if they enforced standing regulations, then that would be a better place to start than pumping up some bureaucratic money mill that will penalize all the honest and fair landlords, and then inadvertently remove more housing stock form the market if it s found to be substandard. Less supply with existing demand will not make anything any cheaper.

  12. Douglas,

    As I posted on another thread, consider this before you claim that there is no creeping governmental interference with the proposed program.
    An acquaintance of mine from Fairview Illinois states the following:

    “They implemented this up here years ago. Now each new tenant has to get a certificate of occupancy in their name listing any and and all co occupants. This is required prior to getting any utilities and registering any children for school”

    • Do we ticket those who park illegally on the neutral ground or on french quarter sidewalks in order to “generate revenue” or to discourage their scofflaw behavior?

      Bureaucracy exists to enforce the rules which our council establishes. Unless penalties are levied upon slumlords then there’s nothing forcing them to make repairs. The market does not function for those who barely make rent. We need government to take action.

      • Douglas,

        If we allowed people with cars under a certain value to park in the neutral ground, thereby exempting them from certain parking laws, I might start to think that the actual goal behind issuing parking tickets for parking in the neutral ground was to generate revenue.

        This proposed inspection system is rife with holes and, most crucially, exempts a huge class of rental housing. Accordingly, I think the true goal is get a dedicated funding source, rendering the inspection fees an effective tax. The facts bear this out.

        And what we need to force government to make repairs is an effective, reactive administrative enforcement system and better civil remedies. We don’t need a bloated inspection bureaucracy.

  13. Douglas,

    I’m advocating higher penalties so that attorneys will be more willing to take on landlord/tenant cases. For the record, I’ve represented clients on both sides. More specifically, I have taken cases on contingency to get a security deposit back.

    Obviously I concede that the threat of litigation isn’t the whole solution, so you can stop raising that as a strawman. Besides, the threat of litigation only works if the law provides substantive remedies, and I think it could do more. If you increase penalties there’s more skin in the game and more incentive for lawyers to take cases.

    • We agree that damages whether compensatory or punitive could be increased though significant barriers exist which prevent indigent clients from accessing the legal system. Glad to hear you’ve taken work pro-bono but again City Hall should enforce humane living standards. With government on their side tenants could have resolution without costly legal proceedings. In our overly litigious society I think that’s a laudable goal.

      • Douglas,

        I don’t do the work pro-bono, but there’s enough meat on the bone in some of these cases to make them worthwhile. Better remedies would improve the situation greatly, though, because with smaller deposits there’s really not enough at stake to make a small claims lawsuit worthwhile without higher statutory penalties.

        I greatly prefer litigation to broad-based regulation in these cases. It normally doesn’t impose costs on innocent parties and it tends to reach fairer outcomes (generally, people don’t rush to the courts and only sue when they genuinely feel wronged).

  14. Douglas,

    Wow. Those are irrelevant to this. Just because some regulations in the past were good doesn’t mean that this regulation is good.

    You do provide at least one pertinent example; rent control is just plain stupid.

    • “Just because some regulations in the past were good doesn’t mean that this regulation is good.”

      Those examples which I cited were situations where “market forces” did not provide remedy but in fact created economic exploitation. Government action ended the oppression.

      “rent control is just plain stupid.”

      If you believe that unfettered markets are the ideal yet we can see the obvious outcomes in New Orleans as poor people are forced from their neighborhoods. Like in those other examples I cited, we should collectively declare housing a human right.

      Landlords do not produce anything useful for our economy but rather gather income from those who cannot afford entry into the housing market. This is exploitative especially when real estate developers lower the supply of housing, such as by closing the Big Four, therefore increasing scarcity and driving up prices. Rent control provides one way to lessen such exploitation.

      Our society cannot function properly without social cohesion. We reside in America’s second most unequal city. I do not understand why you’re so hostile to policies that would greatly benefit so many of your fellow New Orleanians.

  15. Having owned a shotgun double uptown since 1988, I can say that the cost of being a landlord in New Orleans has increased greatly. And the property value going up doesn’t give me added revenue unless I sell the property, it only gives me a larger property tax bill each year.
    I have been unfairly accused of unfair practices, even though I have rented to Hispanic gays, a black couple with a baby, a college couple with a toddler, and a single jewish woman. I did not discriminate and was hassled horribly by FHAC until my attorney was finally able to get a copy of the tape recording that put to rest all of their accusations. They were not interested in fair housing, but in scaring me into giving them money. I have to wonder if this is a money grab if they stand to get some grant out of it from the city or perhaps even a contract to do the inspections?
    Honestly, one more reason not to have rental property in New Orleans and there will be two less quality units on the market by this landlord.

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