Stacy Head did not appear happy this past week with her colleague on the city council, LaToya Cantrell. Without any real warning, Cantrell announced vague plans to rapidly introduce an ordinance to create a rental inspection bureaucracy with regular inspections and a comprehensive online database.
“I reiterate my position that this ordinance is not ready for introduction next week,” Head frustratedly wrote in an email to the council. “The lightning speed with which this is moving as well as the apparent insular nature of the discussion is disconcerting.”
Indeed, judging from the media blurbs, this ordinance may as well have been drafted by the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. It traces their proposed “reforms” precisely. Meanwhile, the Apartment Association of Greater New Orleans, which represents landlords, was not consulted at all.
Numerous cities have passed rental registry laws in the past several years, especially after the Urban Land Institute, an influential left-wing think tank, began recommending the approach.
Although Head’s disappointment with Cantrell’s attempt at sandbagging the council was understandable, she couldn’t have been all that shocked at the substance of the draft ordinance. Cantrell’s habit of pushing flavor-of-the-month legislation and allowing herself to be a conduit for legislation from progressive interest groups (cough, smoking ban, cough) has become pretty obvious.
To her credit, Cantrell appeared to acknowledge her miscalculation and subsequently vowed to delay introducing the ordinance.
Nevertheless, it’s pretty clear that Cantrell is way off-base when it comes to a plan for regulating rentals. Yes, there is a problem with code enforcement in New Orleans, but that’s because the city can’t even effectively respond to specific complaints, not because we haven’t created a database or initiated mass inspections.
Cantrell’s solution to the problem isn’t to properly manage and fund code enforcement (preferably with fines) but to create a new bureaucracy. In other words, instead of dealing with known slumlords, Cantrell wants to put the onus of regulation on everybody. It might catch the guilty, but it also burdens the innocent.
It’s also not altogether clear that it would be very effective, either. Inspections would be done of just 15 percent of units every three years, and owner-occupied properties with a single apartment would be exempted entirely. You could drive a truckload of substandard housing through those gaps.
Furthermore, the fee for these inspections will be (if Cantrell is to be believed) “nominal” so as to avoid rent increases. One wonders whether the program can realistically be funded with nominal inspection fees. In any event, quick inspections are unlikely to reveal issues outside of obvious defects, which would be apparent to potential tenants anyway and easily reported to the city.
Housing rights advocates typically argue that inspections are necessary because some renters don’t complain out of concern for retaliation, yet it is just as likely that many tenants aren’t complaining because they know that they get a break on rent for tolerating sluggish maintenance or having to make their own repairs.
Besides, if a landlord is already flouting the law, and their tenants aren’t willing to report them, how is the city supposed to ensure that they register their rentals to begin with? Tenant complaints are a necessary part of the equation.
Moreover, it’s not altogether clear that tenants would appreciate the intrusion anyway. A tenant may be justifiably wary of having their home inspected by an agent of the government without their permission and without a search warrant. In other cities, this has manifested itself in lawsuits alleging Fourth Amendment violations, some of which have resulted in rental inspection laws being struck.
Ultimately, there is simply no need for rentals to be registered with the city and regularly inspected. It reeks of the attitude that everything needs to be regulated and that nothing can be done without the city’s permission.
Cantrell’s blunder has given her time to reassess what she’s doing and bring in other stakeholders. Will she take advantage of that and put forth a better ordinance, or even back off entirely? It’s doubtful, but only time will tell.
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.