New Orleans City Council members are beginning an effort to eliminate substandard rental housing in the city with a proposal that would require many rental units to be registered and regularly inspected to ensure they meet minimum standards. The proposal, authored by council members LaToya Cantrell and Jason Williams, is still in its draft form and could undergo a number of revisions before it comes up for a vote. But both said the ordinance is overdue and would be a crucial way of ensuring that tenants have safe housing in the city.
“Rents have risen dramatically in the last decade, but the conditions of the rentals have not come close to keeping up with that pace,” Cantrell said.
The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center has been discussing the idea of such a registry with council members for about a year and a half as part of its push to improve the quality of rental housing in the city, said James Perry, the organization’s executive director.
“Good landlords will find this to be a minor matter to deal with. It will be the landlords who have properties that are in major disrepair and who shouldn’t be renting the properties that will run into problems,” Perry said.
About 55 percent of the housing in New Orleans is rented, totaling about 86,000 occupied units. Of those, an estimated 49,000 units have some sort of serious issue, according to a December report from the Fair Housing Action Center. The report used estimated figures based on census surveys from 2011 and did not evaluate actual properties.
Those issues range from relatively easy fixes — up to 5,450 were estimated to lack working smoke detectors — to problems requiring serious repairs, such as the 5,300 units that had issues with outside leaks, such as in the roof.
A sizable number of properties also lack necessary facilities. About 2,350 rentals did not have a working bathroom at some point in the three months before the data were collected, 1,200 lacked a kitchen and 1,900 lacked complete plumbing.
“This is one of the few times I think we are actually trying to deal with the elephant in the room in New Orleans: the issue of poverty, the issue of what type of lives the most marginalized children are living,” Williams said.
Rental properties are already required to meet the city’s housing code, though there is no program in place to regularly inspect them. Instead, inspectors are sent out if a complaint is made — a process that can end with the tenant being evicted until the property is brought up to standards.
Cantrell and Williams’ proposal would try to rectify that by requiring landlords to register with the city. They would then have to undergo inspections every three years to ensure their property meets the code. If they pass, they would receive a certificate allowing them to rent out the property. If they fail, they’d have to bring the property up to code before it could be rented.
Perry said that approach would treat landlords like any other business owner whose business must be licensed and inspected and meet certain standards.
A range of properties would be exempted from the registration and inspections. Units owned or subsidized by government agencies, medical facilities, nursing homes, hospices and dorms would not be covered by the ordinance because, in many cases, they already are subject to their own inspection requirements.
Owner-occupied properties that have two or fewer rental units also would be exempt. That would cover doubles where the owner lives on one side and rents the other, for example.
Fees collected as part of the registration process would pay for the entire program, meaning it would not take money away from other city priorities, the council members said.
The exact amount that would be charged is not spelled out in the draft ordinance and is still under discussion, but Williams predicted it would work out to about $3 per month per unit, an amount that he said would not be overly burdensome if it is passed on to tenants.
The council members hope to introduce the measure at Thursday’s meeting, though it may not be ready in time. After it is formally introduced, both council members said they plan to hold public discussions about the measure before moving it through the city’s legislative process.
Cantrell described the measure as an extension of efforts in 2013 to crack down on blighted properties.
The idea of a registry is based on those in other cities, including Seattle; Nashville, Tennessee; and Boulder, Colorado. Officials with the Fair Housing Action Center said they were not aware of any similar programs in Louisiana.
The measure is expected to face opposition from landlords.
The new requirements — and the fees that would be part of the program — could cause rents to increase even further, said Donald Vallee, president of the New Orleans Landlords Association.
“Our rents are high as it is. This is only going to cause rents to go higher,” he said.
And, he argued, the existing code enforcement structure should take care of ensuring rental properties meet the city’s standards.
Other requirements could add burdens on landlords, many of whom own only a handful of units and are barely scraping by, Vallee said.
“They don’t have the financial capacities to pay a dollar more,” he said.
The members of Vallee’s group rent units subsidized by the Housing Authority of New Orleans that would be exempt from the measure. But, he said, many of them also have other properties that would be subject to the new regulations, and he predicted “it’s only a matter of time” before the regulations would be expanded.
Perry argued that affordable housing does not have to come at the cost of decent living conditions.
“What we found is many cities have a basic standard, or a basic process like this,” Perry said. “They have affordable housing that is safe, decent and healthy. We have affordable housing that’s deplorable and almost unlivable.”
One big question facing both the housing advocates and the council is how to deal with tenants at a property that does not pass inspection. Officials are considering their options, hoping to come up with a way to keep those renters from going from substandard housing to none at all.
Williams said he didn’t expect most properties would require repairs of that magnitude, but he said the issue of what would happen in those instances is of concern to officials.
“One of the things we struggle with in the office late in the evenings is what about that one or two times a month where they say, ‘This place is so bad it is uninhabitable,’ ” Williams said. “We’re not going to give this (proposal) a force of law until we can find a real solution to that problem, and right now I can’t say we’ve found one that we’re comfortable with.”
But, he said, officials will work toward coming up with solutions to that issue as they discuss the measure as a whole.
“I think we need to have real answers, solutions and resources for that family, but needless to say, I don’t want to delay this,” he said. “Because the fact that we have really ignored this issue for so long is problematic and frankly affects this community at large.”
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