Baton Rouge continues to grapple with how it should protect renters from retaliatory slumlords.

Metro Council members worked to hash out language for a new ordinance right up to the start of their meeting Wednesday but ultimately decided to work another two weeks to try to get it right.

Ordinance sponsor Donna Collins-Lewis remarked she's probably gone through nine drafts, but the goal is to protect tenants who complain that their homes are not up to code. Collins-Lewis wants to protect whistleblowers from retaliation such as eviction or having their rents jacked up.

Many people living in substandard housing are elderly and can't afford to pick up and move if they lose their current housing, even if it's "a dump," Collins-Lewis said.

The gold standard would be to subject rental properties to regular inspections like restaurants, said Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, which also covers Baton Rouge.

The Collins-Lewis proposal actually sets a much lower bar, she said.

The city-parish is "radically out of step" with much of the country that assured protections for renters back in the 1960s and 1970s, said Maxwell Ciardullo, the Center's director of policy and communications.

Advocates packed the Metro Council chambers to back the renter protection proposal. Several spoke, and at least 53 others signed their silent support.

Property owners and real estate professionals supported protection for renters but worried about unintended consequences.

One version of the ordinance would flip the legal system, requiring landlords to prove a problem didn't exist — a difficult position, said Herb Gomez of the Greater Baton Rouge Association of Realtors. That was the organization's biggest concern with the ordinance, but he said the group would work with the city-parish on language.

Attorney Steve Myers said the proposal could create a loophole allowing renters to abuse allegations of code violation to freeze rent indefinitely when it would normally increase. And how will the city-parish grandfather older buildings that met old code but may not meet the current requirements, he wondered.

Property manager Michelle Rabalais said she sometimes has to evict people. She recalled telling a tenant to remove a Christmas tree still outside in May — and her resident physically attacked her.

Ciardullo said the people advocating for renter protection aren't worried about the properties managed by folks who came out to Wednesday's council meeting.

"This is an anti-slumlord ordinance," he said.

Landlords will still be able to evict people who damage property and don't pay their rent. The new changes would prevent evictions of people just for reporting legitimate health and safety concerns, Cairdullo said.

Renters and attorneys spoke of children falling in open holes, the presence of unsanitary pipes and elderly people being forced to sleep on a couch with the oven open in winter because their heat didn't work.

"Renters are afraid to tell their story for fear of retaliation," said Laquitta Bowers of the Foundation for Louisiana.

Councilwoman Barbara Freiberg was among those who kept tweaking the ordinance into Wednesday afternoon. She vowed to keep working but said she could not in good faith vote for a proposal she received the day of a meeting, much less for one she received less than an hour before the item was considered.

Freiberg successfully moved for a two-week deferral to continue work. Councilman Trae Welch said it may take even longer to craft the right ordinance to allow renters to feel safe voicing their concerns.


Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.