A new Georgia law has set its sights on protecting the rights of renters by banning landlords from engaging in retaliatory actions against tenants who report code violations or unsafe living conditions.
Some Forsyth County officials say that the law is a step too far, while others say it is a step in the right direction for ensuring safe housing for all.
On May 8, Gov. Brian Kemp signed House Bill 346 into law, which makes it illegal for landlords in the state of Georgia to retaliate against tenants for reporting issues with building, housing codes or utility problems to government agencies by raising rents or denying services.
The bill was overwhelmingly accepted by Georgia legislators who voted to approve its passage in late March. For Forsyth County legislators, the bill wasn’t greeted as warmly, with state Reps. Wes Cantrell and Marc Morris in favor and state Rep. Sheri Gilligan and state Sens. Greg Dolezal and Steve Gooch opposed.
In a statement to the Forsyth County News, Dolezal said that he opposed the bill due to the burden that it reportedly places on property owners.
Under the new law, landlords could be liable to civil penalties and court costs in certain instances. Dolezal said that he was concerned with the presumption and intent the new law could prescribe to property owners.
“While we can agree that retaliation for repair requests is wrong, this bill puts the property owner in the position of having to prove a lack of intent when taking certain actions,” he said.
State Rep. Morris told the FCN that he supported the bill because he felt that it protected low income workers, which in turn would be good for business.
"The vast majority of those renting properties are good, honest people that want their properties taken care of," Morris said. "… What this is is protecting the most vulnerable against those who prey on the most vulnerable."
Two local housing charities anonymously surveyed by the FCN stated that aside from housing costs and availability in the county, daily life in sub-standard housing is the biggest problem that their clients face.
The charities stated that due to availability and budget constraints their clients reported living in homes with a host of sanitation and code violations ranging from mold, bug infestations, sewage backups and broken HVAC systems to roof leaks and gaping holes in flooring.
In many cases, these tenants were threatened with eviction or rent hikes if they complained, according to the surveys.
But with House Bill 346 now law in Georgia, local groups have begun to band together to educate renters on their rights.
According to Joni Smith, president of The Place of Forsyth, their organization has partnered with Georgia Legal Services to offer Forsyth County residents and other nonprofit groups a seminar on renter’s rights and the new law.
“We know there are many citizens who will need this information, but alone we cannot inform them all,” Smith said. “While this is certainly a step in the right direction, the responsibility of enforcement ultimately lies at the local level.”
Smith said that the lack of official oversight and enforcement of housing conditions leaves tenants uncertain of where to go for help.
In Forsyth County, a tenant that wants to report housing conditions of their rental property must go through the court system, according to Forsyth County Director of Communications Karen Shields. Shields said that if they wish, renters can hire home inspectors to document concerns and take those concerns to their landlord, but there is no local or state agency that oversees housing conditions.
“While the new law does prohibit retaliation against tenants for reporting concerns, in Georgia, there is not a government agency with power to intervene in a landlord-tenant contract dispute or force one party to behave in a particular way, outside the court system,” Shields told the FCN.
Smith said that this is a shortcoming of the system, because many of their clients have neither the money to pursue a civil suit in the court system or to move to a better situation.“[House Bill 346] is a great starting point, but without local enforcement the odds continue to be stacked against the working poor,” Smith said. “It will take a concerted effort from local leadership to insure that all FOCO residents enjoy a minimum standard of living.”