Tenant protection bill before Georgia Senate must do more to curb predatory landlords, advocates say


Liz Fabian

The old parking deck adjacent to the Dempsey Apartments is being put up for sale by the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority for future residential or office lofts or condominiums.

Housing advocates say a bill proposing new tenant protections is a step in the right direction for Georgia, which has weak tenant protection laws, but it still fails to properly shield people from predatory and negligent landlords.

Proposed by a bipartisan slate of lawmakers, House Bill 404, the “Safe at Home Act,” unanimously passed the Georgia House on March 2 by a 168-0 vote, and it’s currently under consideration by the Senate. The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on it Monday at 4 p.m.

For the first time in Georgia, this bill would “provide for a duty of habitability for certain rental agreements,” which is a muddled way of saying landlords would have to guarantee their units are livable. Any rental contract is “deemed to include a provision that the premises is fit for human habitation,” the bill says. It also specifies that utilities mean air conditioning, along with heat, light and water service.

 The bill would also cap the amount landlords can charge for security deposits at two months’ rent and require landlords to give three days notice before they can file an eviction against a tenant who’s behind on rent or utility bills.

Housing advocates say the current draft is an improvement over past iterations, which allowed landlords to charge three months’ rent for a security deposit and allowed a landlord to evict a tenant before the lease expired for “criminal activity.”

However, they criticize the four-page bill for the brevity and vagueness of the provision that a dwelling must be “fit for human habitation.” The bill provides no further guidance or details on what that actually looks like, which makes it hard to enforce, they say.

That comes when landlords overall have more power than renters, because it’s very much a landlord’s market in Atlanta and statewide, at a time when ongoing rent hikes far outpace wage increases.

The bill doesn’t define “habitability,” advocacy group Housing Justice League pointed out in a statement, calling for a “more explicit” explanation of how landlords would be held accountable for providing apartments that are indeed habitable.

The working language leaves open the possibility that landlords interpret the word to their benefit, the group worries.

Relatedly, the bill does not clearly specify “how a tenant may enforce the law if a landlord fails to provide habitable premises,” said Michael Lucas, the head of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation.

“The legislature could improve the bill by adding a definition linking habitability to relevant housing codes and other core protections,” he said, “and by giving tenants a meaningful enforcement method.”

Lucas also said the part of the bill that gives tenants a three-day notice to remedy unpaid rent and other fees before the landlord can file for eviction should offer renters more leeway.

“The period should be expanded to at least seven days—and should apply to all evictions, not just nonpayment cases,” he said.

Housing Justice League supports the current legislation, after successfully lobbying to cut the two problematic provisions to prematurely evict people for “criminal activity” and allow landlords to charge three months rent as a security deposit.

Still, the group said in its statement, HB 404 must be “just the first step in passing stronger regulations to protect Georgia’s renters.”

Georgia has some of the weakest tenant protection laws in the nation, in part because many state legislators are also landlords, Atlanta Civic Circle has reported.

Housing Justice League also successfully lobbied for the Atlanta City Council to pass a resolution establishing a local tenant bill of rights last year. The measure created the city’s Office of the Tenant Advocate, urged property owners to inform tenants of their legal rights, and called on landlords to afford renters a warning before filing an eviction against them for nonpayment of rent.

But the city council legislation is non-binding; neglectful or exploitative landlords are not required by law to abide by any of those statutes.

The city council resolution also urged state lawmakers to repeal the decades-old Georgia ban that prevents local counties and cities from enacting rent stabilization measures, such as limits on rent increases. Legislation proposed by state Sen. Donzella James (D-Atlanta) to do just that died in the Senate before Crossover Dayon March 6.