A shared disdain for slumlords was about all that united tenants’ rights groups and landlords as they sparred Wednesday over proposals to increase the regulation of rental units in New Orleans.
The debate, sparked by a proposal put forward by City Council members LaToya Cantrell and Jason Williams, saw the two sides argue for two hours before a council committee over whether strict inspection schedules and registration would help cure the scourge of substandard housing in the city, or whether they would simply be an assault on good landlords while those already flouting the city’s standards would continue to fly under the radar.
The Cantrell-Williams plan would require many rental properties in the city to register with the city and undergo regular inspections to ensure they are up to code. If not, the owners would lose the ability to rent their units. The proposal, which has been the subject of private discussions since the summer, has been pushed by groups such as the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, which say the city has more than its fair share of residents living in squalid conditions.
While a draft ordinance has been circulated, council members stressed that nothing is written in stone and urged cooperation to come up with a workable set of regulations.
“We are creating this together,” Williams said. “This is an open conversation.”
Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration believes “more must be done to protect renters in New Orleans,” Landrieu spokesman Brad Howard said, but he suggested additional tweaks are needed to the current proposal.
“Whatever idea we ultimately adopt must not be overly burdensome for good landlords and should not displace tenants or raise rents — unintended consequences that could be worse than the status quo for rental properties that are lower-quality, but not deplorable or unsafe,” Howard said in an email.
Tenants and their advocates lined up to talk about apartments in deplorable condition, including instances where raw sewage runs down the walls, where rats and termites run free and where problems with mold and mushrooms are common. In many of those cases, complaints about the units were ignored, or the tenants were forced out after complaining to their landlords.
A report from the Fair Housing Action Center last year estimated that about 55 percent of the rental units in the city might not be up to code, with issues ranging from the dramatic to more mundane but still serious problems, such as a lack of smoke detectors.
While acknowledging such properties are a serious problem, numerous landlords and representatives of apartment complexes told the council the proposed registry would do little to help. Instead, they said, it would add a burden to landlords who already follow the rules while “slumlords” who ignore existing regulations would simply continue to do so.
“Do you think a slum landlord is going to register his blighted properties? I find that very unlikely,” landlord Pat O’Brian said.
But advocates said new regulations are needed because the only time an apartment now is checked to ensure it complies with city standards is when it is first built or renovated. Getting another inspection or action from the city means going through an unresponsive Code Enforcement Department and risking eviction, the advocates said.
The proposed ordinance calls for the registry and inspections to be paid for through fees collected from landlords. Williams predicted those fees would be roughly $100 for an initial registration of a unit and $50 for a follow-up inspection every three years — a cost he suggested would not be overly burdensome if spread out over that time.
Several landlords at Wednesday’s meeting, however, argued that it would create a problem for them or their tenants.
Cantrell floated an additional idea for helping bolster the city’s inspection efforts during a public discussion hosted by The Lens on Wednesday morning.
That idea would involve tapping into a millage passed in 1991 that directs about $3 million a year into a city program known as the Neighborhood Housing Improvement Fund. A task force is supposed to recommend uses for the fund as part of a strategic plan to improve housing in the city, a requirement that Cantrell said has not been met for many years.
Howard, noting that spending of the fund’s money in previous years was approved by the council, said the administration would work with Cantrell to abide by the ordinance in the future.
Under Cantrell’s proposal, the task force and strategic plan would be reinstated, and some of the money in the fund could be used to further the goals of the proposed rental registry. That could include both enforcement efforts and the creation of a revolving loan fund that could help pay to bring properties up to the city’s standards, she said.
“Right now, we’re paying for a couple lawyers in Code Enforcement, and that’s it,” Cantrell said. “That’s not a strategic plan. That’s not a plan of action where we can show people how their neighborhoods are being improved.”
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.