A proposal by City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell that would require many New Orleans landlords to register their rental homes with the city and submit them to inspections got its first public airing Wednesday at a council committee meeting.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, speakers at the Community Development Committee meeting were divided into two camps: landlords, many of whom said they felt such a sweeping proposal would unfairly target good property owners and lead to higher rents; and tenants and tenant advocates, who said the idea would lead to higher quality housing.
As of Wednesday, the rental registry — supported by groups including the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center and Providence Community Housing* — was still just a concept, not even a draft ordinance. Cantrell had crafted legislation, securing support from at-Large Councilman Jason Williams, and planned to introduce it at Thursday’s City Council meeting. But, as The Lens reported last week, the draft lacked specifics, including inspection fees and what standards would be enforced.
Cantrell has hit reset on the registry, seeking public comment before introducing a new version.
Jane Stubbs, who spoke out as a tenant in favor of the registry, said she was recently displaced from her rented home because her landlord refused her many repair requests. She said the house was infested with rats and insects and had leaks and improperly installed doors and locks.
“The conditions became unbearable,” she said. “I was dealing with rats the size of nutrias. … I had a wall that had black mold. I replaced the wall personally.”
Mtumishi St. Julien, executive director of the Finance Authority of New Orleans, said the idea of a rental registry in New Orleans is hardly new. It was first proposed in 2004 as a more efficient way of dealing with blight than relying on complaints and code inspections, followed by a drawn out code-enforcement process. The idea, he said, is similar to car inspections, where all drivers are required to take their cars in, increasing compliance and making basic safety standards easier for the police to enforce.
“When someone comes and drives up to get their inspection, there is a minimum code for safety,” he said. “By separating the code enforcement from the inspection, you can create greater efficiencies.”
But David Abbenante of HRI Properties, which owns and manages apartment buildings throughout the city, said he wondered how, when the city has trouble enforcing the housing codes already on the books, it would be able to administer such a large new program.
“We support the enforcement of code violations and fines, and even stepped up enforcement,” he said. “If there are laws and there are rules out there, and they’re not being enforced… I wonder how adding more is going to help.”
Neal Morris, of Redmellon Restoration and Development, said he was concerned about a provision in Cantrell’s draft ordinance that would let the city outsource the inspections to contractors.
“Imagine letting for-profit companies like the ones that do the speeding cameras inside your house,” Morris said. “So they can find ways to fine you and make more money.”
“Those costs are passed on to tenants,” he said.
Earlier on Wednesday, at The Lens’ Breakfast With the Newsmakers event, Cantrell said it wasn’t yet clear what the program would cost the city, though she said she wants to keep fees low so as only to allow the program to pay for itself.
She also said she’s considering tapping into the city’s Neighborhood Housing Improvement Fund to help cover its costs. The tax, which generates $2.5 million per year in revenue for the city, was created in 1991 to fund affordable housing initiatives and blight enforcement. And while some of it is, in fact, used for blight enforcement, it’s also used for other purposes, including job creation initiatives and salaries for several assistant city attorneys and administrative positions.
Speaking at the committee meeting, Alexandra Miller of the Crescent City Community Land Trust also suggested the registry program as a possible use for the money.
Cantrell pointed out that the city has not followed its own laws on how the fund is administered, failing to appoint a legally mandated advisory board to give the city guidance on how to spend the money.
“When I saw that that process wasn’t being followed, I dug a little bit deeper and it’s gotten us to the point where we are today where we’re having serious discussions with the administration,” she said at the meeting. “It’s not a matter of targeting any administration. It’s just a matter of fine-tuning the law, so we’re following the law.”
*Clarification: Andreanecia Morris, who identified herself as an employee of Providence Community Housing at the meeting, spoke in support of the proposal. However, following this article’s publication, Morris told The Lens that she was speaking on behalf of a broader coalition, the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance, of which Providence is a member.