New Orleans City Councilmembers LaToya Cantrell and Jason Williams at a press conference outside City Hall before debate over a proposed rental registry.
A program to register and inspect most rental units in the city will head to the New Orleans City Council, but councilmembers are likely to make changes to the measure in the coming weeks.
A 4-0 vote from the Council's Community Development Committee Jan. 18 sends the 15-page plan — an ordinance outlining the fees for rental unit registration and requirements for inspection — to the full Council for a vote, but councilmembers, residents and landlords raised several questions about how it'll work and whether there could be significant negative impacts to the city's affordable housing stock. "The bottom line is, our citizens deserve better," said District B Councilmember LaToya Cantrell, who co-authored the ordinance with At-Large Councilmember Jason Williams. "Housing that doesn’t meet quality standards impacts everybody."
The ceiling inside Tuere Jones' apartment in New Orleans East collapsed before she had a chance to unpack her bags. Her 8- and 11-year-old children were exposed to mold and mildew, sending her son to the hospital to treat his asthma. "Something has to be done so people can live comfortably," Jones said outside City Hall. "And stop people from moving into places that should be condemned."
At the meeting. several renters shared their horror stories living in homes owned by landlords who refused to make repairs or treat for mold and mildew and pests, or landlords who threatened them with eviction after requests for repairs. Fair housing advocacy groups detailed the city's revolving door for substandard housing, often trapping low-income tenants in shoddy units without any recourse through the city's Code Enforcement while they lived in fear of eviction.
More than half the city rents, and as much as 40 percent of renters are rent-burdened, spending more half their income on rent and utilities and leaving little room for savings let alone money for repairs, and contributing to a major public health issue.
"We’re talking about a base, a place people return to when the world has failed them ... a place people return to for peace and safety," said Nia Weeks, director of policy and advocacy with Women with a Vision.
Several landlords also voiced support for the ordinance and pointed to the city's "bad actors" creating unfair competition pushing tenants into worse conditions. "Those of us who claim to be good landlords need to stand with the tenants, the Council and the advocates to isolate the bad actors," said Hannah Kreiger-Benson.
As written, the ordinance creates a fee structure for property owners to register with a publicly accessibly database, and to be subject to inspection at least once every three years (if the unit passes inspection, which follows a checklist: no mold and mildew, working appliances, access to hot water, working smoke detectors, electricity connections). If the unit passes, it receives a Certificate of Compliance. Inspections are likely to be performed by a third-party company, NMA Inspections, hired by the city last year after a request for proposals attracted three bids. California-based NMA won.
But many landlords oppose the program, which they argue will force them to raise rents, as fees and construction costs will be passed down to tenants, effectively erasing the city's affordable housing stock. Opponents suggested the city's Code Enforcement and Department of Safety and Permits already is equipped to deal with tenant complaints, and that the inspection process simply creates a new tax (though the city says the program is revenue neutral, paying for itself through fees and fines).
Domingo Correa, a landlord with 38 units, said the city should ask Safety and Permits why the city has so much substandard housing, if that is their job to handle.
Housing advocates say Code Enforcement, though the city's 3-1-1, is not working for renters, and renters fear eviction if complaints with the city reach their landlords. ("It’s not sufficient to say they can call code enforcement — we know that doesn’t work," said District A Councilmember Susan Guidry.)
The ordinance also includes some tenant protections — it prohibits retaliatory action from landlords (unlawful termination of lease, lawsuits, decreases in services) and lists tenants' "protected activities," including notifying the landlord of the rules in the ordinance, requesting fixes, and notifying Code Enforcement.
Councilmembers will continue the debate as amendments are drawn up in the coming weeks before the measure heads to the full Council for a vote. Still up in the air is what tenants will do if their unit doesn't pass inspections and they're forced to vacate, how the city will enforce the measure against landlords who refuse to comply, and why certain properties are exempt from registration and inspection. As written, the ordinance does not include short-term rentals and city- and government-owned properties,
"If one of goals is to have accurate and publicly available database," Head said, "why are any properties not subjected to at least the application form for the registry so they can at least be a part of registry?"
Meanwhile, renters like Tanya Lewis, who suffered through roach infestations and mold and mildew in several homes, says "the ordinance gives me hope that poor quality housing not the norm,"