A New Orleans property management group has urged its tenants to ask the City Council to reject a proposal for the city to register and inspect the group's apartments and others, claiming that if the plan is passed, rents will increase.
That message, and especially a second recent letter warning that the cost of any required repairs would be billed to tenants, has sparked the ire of critics who say such a threat is false and, if put into practice, would run afoul of state law.
If the council approves a rental registry and an apartment fails a city inspection, the letters from Superior Property Management imply that "they would take that tenant’s $700 monthly rent payment and apply that to the cost of repairing a roof, and then charge the tenant another $700 for the actual rent payment," said Cashauna Hill of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.
“It would be our position that that’s unlawful."
Some housing experts generally agree with the advocates on that point, though they say the law does provide some exceptions.
Read the letters, below:
Superior Property President Eric France conceded that his firm's letters were "poorly worded." But he said they were only intended to call attention to a little-known part of his firm's standard lease, one that requires additional payments to cover the cost of damage caused by tenants.
“If I had personally written that letter, I would not have written it that way, and it sounds like I need to send out a new letter to clarify that,” France said. “That’s not our intention at all.”
He said a rental registry would lead to higher rent, but only because Superior will need to pass on to tenants the fees the city would charge landlords for inspecting their units, and any money it would have to pay to staff members who must meet city inspectors for inspections.
The letters point up the continuing debate over a city proposal that advocates say will crack down on substandard and sometimes dangerous rentals in the city.
Many landlords, by contrast, have argued that the proposal would be too burdensome and costly and would likely be ignored by the worst landlords, meaning its requirements would fall mainly on those already keeping their apartments up to par.
Under the plan, which has not been approved by the City Council, the city would hire a firm to register and inspect most private rental housing in the city.
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Short-term rentals, medical facilities and units operated by educational institutions would be exempt. Units subsidized by government programs, which have their own inspection schedules, would also be exempt.
The city would begin registering properties in January 2018, and all landlords would have to sign up by the end of that year, with varying deadlines based on the number of apartments a property contains.
If an apartment passed its initial inspection, it wouldn’t be required to have another one for three years, though problematic properties would have more frequent reviews.
The program would be paid for by fees of about $190 every three years for each unit.
Some landlords have long said those fees could be passed on to tenants, though they have avoided saying they would raise rents on existing tenants for the kind of structural problems that plague many subpar apartments in the city.
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That’s why when Kelli Walker of the New Orleans Metropolitan Association of Realtors read the two letters from Superior — one of which told people to call Walker if they had questions — she was surprised.
“That’s definitely not something I would have sent out at all,” she said.
Superior apparently copied parts of a letter Walker’s association sent to its members. That letter was meant to be signed by registry critics and mailed to council members, she said.
The association letter does say repair costs would “have a negative impact on housing affordability in New Orleans,” but Walker said that means new tenants coming in might pay more than an old tenant did if an apartment were newly repaired, not that an existing tenant would have to pay for repairs.
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Walker said she’s never heard of an agreement where a tenant's rent can first be applied to repairs if the landlord so chooses and additional rent imposed.
Hill, of the housing advocacy group, said the letters were misleading because the proposed ordinance calls for only nominal costs to landlords for inspections. The landlords complaining the loudest are often those who own units that need serious repairs, she said.
And when a landlord tells tenants to ask the council to vote something down or else face rising rent, that can be taken as a threat, Hill said.
France, for his part, dismissed any notion that his units are subpar or that his company meant to intimidate tenants.
He distanced himself from the overall tone of the letters, saying that he was out of town when someone in his office sent them.
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While he said his company does not charge renters for problems they don’t create, he conceded that the letters could be interpreted to mean that all repair costs would be billed to tenants.
That was how Sally Brown Richardson, a Tulane law professor who specializes in property law, read the letters when they were shown to her. It’s generally the landlord’s responsibility, not the tenant’s, to maintain a well-kept apartment, she said.
“Certainly, if a tenant caused damage to the property, the landlord has the right to recoup the cost of those repairs from the tenant. But reading those letters, that is not what they imply,” Richardson said.
There are some exceptions to that rule, said Richardson and Melissa Lonegrass, an LSU professor with a background in landlord-tenant law.
Under one exception, a landlord can pass along costs for repairs to damage the tenant didn’t cause, as long as he “clearly and unambiguously” said he would do so at the time the tenant signed the lease, Lonegrass said.
That doesn’t include the kind of horrendous conditions often cited by housing advocates, such as ceilings caving in or other damage that poses risks to tenants’ health or safety, she said.
And the law doesn’t allow a landlord to include such language in the lease without telling a tenant it’s there. “You wouldn’t be able to hook someone and point it out later,” Lonegrass said. “That would defeat the purpose of the law.”