The New Orleans City Council on Thursday unanimously passed a “Healthy Homes” ordinance to create new protections for renters, including minimum housing standards, a public database of rental properties and anti-retaliation laws for renters who report issues.
Housing advocates have pushed hard for the law, but its passage on Thursday was a bittersweet moment for some. The ordinance was amended Thursday to remove a requirement for the Department of Safety and Permits to periodically inspect some rental properties to ensure they’re in compliance with the new housing standards. The amendment, approved without any council members’ objection, also removed annual property fees to pay for those inspections.
Many advocates for the original ordinance had argued that periodic inspections were vital to moving the city from the current complaint-based system to a proactive approach.
“This very effective and very essential piece of legislation has been effectively gutted,” HousingNOLA Executive Director Andreanecia Morris said. “We were in support of the original bill. What you have today is not good enough.”
Other advocates said that while they were disappointed at the changes, the law was still a very important piece of legislation that represented a significant improvement from the status quo.
“We’re especially disappointed about the removal of all regular health and safety inspections,” Maxwell Ciardullo of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center said. “It’s a missed opportunity to finally fix our broken, complaint-based system and protect renters and neighbors of slum properties. Still, the registration, new enforcement tools and specifically the anti-retaliation provisions that remain in the ordinance are too important to walk away from.”
The law, as amended, creates minimum standards for rental units in New Orleans, including smoke detectors, proper electric systems and at least one shower, bathroom and kitchen sink. Each unit needs access to hot water, a cooling system that can keep the home at 80 degrees or less and a heating system that can keep the home at 68 degrees or more. The standards also require proper roofs, windows and doors to prevent mold, dampness or deterioration.
Every rental unit needs to register with the city and get a “certificate of compliance” that includes “a statement made under penalty of perjury” self-attesting that the unit meets the new minimum standards. The city would need to maintain a public database of all of those properties, which would include information on past inspections and violations of the new property standards.
The law will apply to all residential housing except for certain medical and educational facilities. It would apply to short-term rentals, but not to hotels or bed and breakfasts.
Although periodic inspections were removed, the law still allows renters to report issues to the city and request an inspection to ensure the property is complying with the new standards.
According to Hannah Adams, a housing attorney with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, one reason the current complaint-based system is flawed is because state law practically allows landlords to retaliate against tenants who make complaints.
“We do get dozens of calls every week from low income tenants who are living in dangerous situations with no recourse,” Adams said. “Our clients are often afraid to ask their landlords for repairs or call code enforcement for fear of retaliation.”
The Healthy Homes ordinance seeks to address that with new anti-retaliation rules that prohibit landlords from terminating a lease, raising rents, not renewing a lease, decreasing services or threatening a lawsuit if a tenant makes a complaint either to the city or directly to the landlord.
“The proposed ordinance contains important protections for tenants,” Adams said. “This will allow us as attorneys to defend retaliatory evictions in court where previously we’ve had no recourse.”
Still, she said that the removal of the periodic inspections “places the entire burden on tenants to enforce the law,” and that even an improved complaint-based system wouldn’t have stopped some of the city’s high profile cases of unsafe housing situations at large complexes.
“Two or three or five tenants who have the courage to call in a complaint resulting in citations for those two or three or five units will not stop a 350-unit complex like Oakmont Apartments from deteriorating to the dangerous conditions we saw this year,” Adams said.
The ordinance was approved in a 5-0 vote. Councilwoman Leslie Harris was absent. Councilman Eugene Green recused himself from the vote because he owns a property management company that could be impacted by the legislation.
The council also passed a motion on Thursday directing Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration to come up with a proposal to create new dedicated staff positions to enforce the healthy homes ordinance. Finally, the council passed a related ordinance to create the “renter anti-displacement fund” to help relocate anyone impacted by the enforcement of the healthy homes ordinance. The council still has to allocate actual dollars to fill that fund.
Required inspections not included in final draft
At a committee meeting in September, housing advocates, attorneys and the city’s Health Department Director Jennifer Avegno all testified to the importance of ensuring rental units are safe, especially in a majority-renter city like New Orleans.
“My team and many in this city have seen first hand the deadly consequences of substandard housing,” Avegno said. “Through this ordinance and others, we have to never allow that to happen again.”
But during that meeting, proponents of the ordinance spoke at length about the importance of a clause that was removed from the final version — periodic inspections.
“A functional system cannot rely on the victims of dangerous and unhealthy housing situations risking the roof over their heads to enforce the law,” Adams said in September. “The system isn’t working, but it can be fixed.”’
The original ordinance required some rental units to undergo periodic inspections — limited to one every three years — to ensure they’re complying with the minimum standards.
Those periodic inspections would have mostly been for large, corporate-owned apartment complexes. The ordinance had exemptions for certain affordable-housing properties, new build homes and properties with four or fewer units owned by a “natural person” instead of a corporation.
Property owners would have had to pay a $120 fee for the inspection, as well as $60 annual registration fees. That money would be used to fund the enforcement of the law.
Councilman JP Morrell, the lead sponsor of the ordinance, said on Thursday that the periodic inspections and fees were removed from the ordinance to prevent those costs from being passed through to renters.
“I cannot tell you how many renters reached out to my office who I met with in person who told me they were adamantly against any increases in rent, whether it be $5 or $10,” Morrell said. “They said I don’t care… I can barely pay my rent as it is.”
Morrell argued that this was a clear step forward for renters protections in New Orleans. And he pushed back on any notion that he was swayed by demands of landlords.
“There are no landlord groups that are in favor of this legislation,” he said.
Morrell also pointed out that the ordinance requires the council to hold a public hearing one year after the ordinance goes into effect to review its effectiveness, meaning there will be an opportunity to revisit the inspection rules.
“This is moving the ball forward,” he said.