New law aims to protect renters from slum landlords

By: - August 12, 2019 8:00 am

Code violations forced some residents to evacuate Macon’s Crystal Lake Apartments in February. Photo by Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

A shoddy electrical system, lack of water service, and an unsafe stairwell were just some of the reasons that prompted Macon-Bibb County officials in February to evacuate nearly 70 people from an apartment building.

Landlords leaving a home or apartment in disrepair by not getting repairs done in a timely manner is a situation that plays out every day across Georgia.

However, a new state law aims to stop landlords from forcing renters to move or hike rent as punishment when they ask for things to be fixed or register a formal complaint. The law is barely a month old and tenant’s rights advocates say it’s too early to gauge how effectively it will hold landlords accountable.

A Cobb County Republican lawmaker pushed the bill in last year’s General Assembly to protect renters against negligent landlords. Gov. Brian Kemp signed it into law in May.

When code violations pile up as they did at Macon’s Crystal Lake Apartments this year, renters and property managers can squabble over rent, security deposits and more.

Repair requests are usually a factor whenever a tenant feels they have been unfairly evicted, said Susan Reif, eviction prevention project director for Georgia Legal Services Program.

Choosing between safe housing and housing

Georgia Legal Services provides free legal help to people whose income falls under 125% of the poverty level. 

“Every case we saw repairs were the underlying issue,” Reif said. “Many of those were cases where tenants had withheld their rent in an effort to get their landlord to make repairs that were requested but had been ignored.

One pitfall for renters is they believe withholding rent is an effective way to force property owners to make repairs. That can seem like a better option than going public with their complaints, which could get them evicted.

“Tenants were having to choose between having safe housing, healthy housing or having housing,” Reif said.

The new renters protection law prohibits landlords from singling out a tenant by hiking rent or evicting them within three months of requesting a repair, filing a complaint with code enforcement or utility service, or creating a housing advocacy organization to protest substandard conditions.

The legislation, sponsored by state House Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, took effect July 1.

Property owners who break the law can be forced to pay a month’s worth of rent plus $500, as well as cover the renter’s court costs and attorney’s fees 

Georgia Legal Services still awaits its first test case.

‘A step in the right direction’

The regulations should encourage more people to speak up about repair issues, said Kahlim Barclay, an attorney for Georgia Legal Services’ regional office in Augusta.

A Georgia tenant living on a month-to-month lease has to provide 30 days of notice to leave a property and the landlord has to give 60 days notice.

The new law covers both written and verbal rental agreements.

“What would often happen is people would have these repair issues, the tenant would let their landlord know and their landlord will say, ‘I may fix this or I will fix this but you have 60 days to get out,’ and there was generally no recourse to that,” Barclay said.

The new law is a good one, said Mike Austin, executive director of the Macon-Bibb County Housing Authority. However, he’d also like to see some local or state money set aside for mediators to benefit people who can’t afford the cost of litigation.

“We don’t see this a lot in Section 8 because landlords know that eventually we will catch up to them,” he said in an email. 

“Unfortunately, the vast majority of rentals are not part of Section 8 — this means there are no inspections and no or little code enforcement,” he added. “This really puts people in a bad situation if they can’t afford to take their landlord to court or move otherwise — but I think this new law is definitely a step in the right direction and I hope it will at least send a message to landlords in Georgia.”

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Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap

Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.