Government & Politics
 

Council committee approves rental registry, though many concerns remain

Councilman Jason Williams address a rally in front of City Hall before he and others on a City Council committee heard more than three hours of discussion on a proposed rental registry

Charles Maldonado / The Lens

Councilman Jason Williams address a rally in front of City Hall before he and others on a City Council committee heard more than three hours of discussion on a proposed rental registry

 

The New Orleans City Council’s Community Development Committee on Wednesday voted unanimously to advance to the full council a proposed rental registry ordinance that requires units to be inspected, with results reported to the public.

Though all council members said they wanted to address substandard housing in the city, the vote came in spite of serious reservations about the current ordinance. Some council members even questioned whether the ordinance was constitutional.

Councilwoman Latoya Cantrell, who is sponsoring the ordinance with Councilman Jason Williams, said there are several amendments being discussed, but she did not offer any details.

“We are going to continue to work on this,” she said.

The ordinance would require most rental-property owners in the city to add their properties to a public database. They must also submit to a property inspection every three years, more often if a property fails a first inspection. The public registry will show when properties have failed. If an owner doesn’t bring the property into compliance, the city will deem it unfit for rental habitation. It can be subject to liens and eventual seizure.

Councilmembers James Gray and Stacy Head both took issue with the mandatory inspections, saying they could be interpreted as warrantless searches that may violate the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.

“Is there a duty on the city’s behalf to obtain a warrant or otherwise attain entry if the landlord or if the tenant refuses entry?” asked Head, who left before the vote.

The argument appears to be supported by a 2015 Ohio lawsuit in which a federal court found a similar program unconstitutional. Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office, which is backing the rental registry, did not respond to requests for comment about the constitutionality question.

Head was also worried that people who live in properties that are found noncompliant will effectively be kicked out by the city.

“I am very concerned with where evicted people are going to go,” she said.

The committee’s vote was preceded by more than three hours of public comment. Though several landlords spoke in favor of the rental registry, the public debate was typically split between tenants in favor, and landlords, or landlord groups, opposed. Prior to the meeting, a group rallied in front of City Hall in favor of the ordinance. Williams and Cantrell both spoke at the rally.

“If we want to ensure robust economic development, we have to bring up the housing stock,” Williams said.

The proposed program has been in the works for two years. In early 2015, The Lens obtained a copy of a draft ordinance being considered for introduction by Cantrell. At the time, the draft came under fire from Head because it lacked specifics on fees and housing standards. Head also criticized the original proposal because it exempted publicly subsidized housing.

Cantrell quickly tabled her proposal, but the rental registry has since become a priority for Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Last year, Landrieu incorporated the idea into his housing plan. In August, the city selected California-based NMA Inspections to develop and run the program.

The ordinance that resulted addresses some of the concerns raised earlier. It includes a fee schedule, with a $60 registration fee and per-unit inspection fees ranging from $30 to $50. It also sets out basic standards, including working plumbing and electricity, lack of mold and properly installed appliances. The ordinance still excludes publicly owned and subsidized property, as well as short-term rental properties.

In opening remarks prior to debate, Laura Tuggle, executive director of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, said she surveyed a single housing attorney’s caseload. Forty-five percent of more than 300 cases, she said, involved serious health concerns, including holes in the floor and rodent infestations.

“We have a very difficult time helping people to avail themselves of what there is now,” Tuggle said. Under current laws, a lawsuit is the only way to try to force reluctant landlords to bring their properties up to code. But even making a dent in the city’s housing problems would take an army of attorneys and a “very slow and often expensive court process.”

Several speakers, tenants of rental properties, complained of persistent problems with their homes that often went unaddressed by landlords. Sherika Evans recalled living in an apartment where she paid weekly rent. Every week the landlord would come by to collect his $160, and every week she would ask for repairs or maintenance.

“I had rodents coming in and out. I had a lot of problems with bugs,” she said. The problems would never be fixed. “I had to go buy my own products, like mice traps, roach spray.”

But some landlords who spoke said the proposal, while well-intended, could exacerbate some of the city’s most serious housing problems, particularly the lack of affordable housing.

Barry Kirsch, who owns rental property in the 9th Ward, asked why short-term rental owners were exempt from inspection. He noted that short-term rentals were only recently legalized after proliferating in the city for years, saying the “very people who have flouted the law for years” appear to be getting preferential treatment. He said he worried that the fees and penalties being proposed will push more landlords out of the traditional rental market and into vacation rentals.

And Bob Chopin, who has led a campaign against the ordinance, said all fees would simply be passed along to tenants.

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