THE BUZZ 2: Renter Rights

By on November 22, 2016

Some glean hope from council’s first discussion on ways to protect tenants.

Jackson resident Aimee MacDonald has had to move 5 times in 3 years.

Jackson resident Aimee MacDonald has had to move five times in three years.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Jackson’s housing crisis was at the forefront of the local election and remains a dire issue for many of this area’s residents. While there are several ideas that both electeds and advocates have suggested for mitigating this crisis, Monday’s Jackson Town Council workshop included discussion on tenant rights, something that may help citizens struggling with unstable living conditions—a result of the crisis. Though the item was slated for 30 minutes of discussion, it only received about five minutes of attention and did not prompt a single public comment from the workshop’s attendees.

In the final mayoral-forum prior to the election, Mayor-elect Pete Muldoon said tenant rights have not been adequately addressed. “[Wyoming has] some of the worst tenant protections in the country,” he said, “and we don’t really have anything on the books for Jackson.” Tenants often live in unsanitary or unsafe environments without leases and have “zero leverage” and “no recourse,” he added.

Mayor Sara Flitner agreed that tenant protections are necessary in a place where citizens have scarce housing options. “We are working to give you answers as fast as possible,” she said.

Indeed, tenant rights are salient for the many community workers who rent homes in the valley where the median price for a home in Jackson is $1.2 million dollars.

In Jackson, it is not unusual for someone to move once a year or more, like Aimee MacDonald, who has moved five times in three years. “All of my living situations have felt unstable,” she said, “and there has been no accountability for housing conditions or concern for tenants.”

MacDonald says it has been impossible to stand up for her rights as a tenant in Wyoming. Living in unsafe and insecure conditions, she has faced financial, physical, and emotional hardship. It has made her future in Jackson Hole uncertain.

The conversation on tenant rights and the issues that impact MacDonald and many other renters was based on two documents. The first was a staff report compiled by the Town’s legal department and presented by town attorney, Audrey Cohen-Davis. The second was a letter submitted by Shelter JH, an advocacy group addressing the emergency of homelessness in Jackson.

The staff report highlighted possible renter protection regulations, including: minimum notice requirements informing a tenant that a unit will not be available for renewal, notice requirements for rent increases, and requirements that landlords “repair/maintain premises in the originally-rented condition” to ensure “minimum health and safety conditions.”

Shelter JH’s letter expanded on these ideas, and specifically asked that the town council work to pass ordinances to protect tenants. Unlike resolutions, ordinances are enforceable.

“Wyoming laws disproportionately favor landlords, providing virtually no protections for tenants,” the letter stated. Currently, “local ordinances contain nothing at all on the subject of landlord-tenant law.” Hence Shelter JH requested that the council “dedicate resources to ensure that tenants have basic protections.”

Shelter JH proposed six specific actions the Town and Housing Department could take. These actions range from requiring landlords to provide a 30- to 60-day notice for no-cause evictions to passing an ordinance that would protect tenants from discrimination based on immigration status and sexual orientation.

Some of Shelter JH’s proposals might be relatively easy to address, such as creating a “standard lease” for renters and landlords to use to ensure leases are in compliance. Some proposals, however, may be more contentious, such as preventing “egregious rent increases.” Implementing this measure would require “a limit on how much landlords can raise rent in a year” to ensure that tenants aren’t subjected to 20 or 40 percent increases.

The majority of the short discussion during Monday’s workshop focused on the possibility of passing an ordinance that would require that landlords, in the words of Shelter JH, “maintain a minimum standard of habitability (including heat and appliances like stoves and refrigerators, beyond the plumbing, electricity, and running water required by the state),” as well as “make repairs to property as needed to keep premises in the condition in which they were rented.”

MacDonald says these regulations would have made all the difference in her experience as a renter and community member. “They would have saved me a lot of time, money, and health problems,” she said. MacDonald says she suffered a serious bout of pneumonia due to a severe mold allergy at the first apartment she rented in Jackson. According to MacDonald, mold was everywhere in the apartment, in the windowsills, the bathroom and the ceilings. When she asked the landlord for help, however, he told her, “Mold is in every house in Jackson.” She also reported other major issues with the apartment. Air pockets in the construction and loosely installed windows and doors meant egregiously high energy bills. MacDonald says her pleas to the landlord for help were met with defensiveness and aggression. “We were told to get out or lose our deposit,” she said. “So, we lost our deposit.”

Neglecting major safety issues such as these would not be allowed if the town passes an ordinance to protect the health of tenants. At the workshop Flitner said that of all the proposals, “Health and safety protections could be acted upon immediately.” Some of the other ideas, however, might require that the participation of other agencies, and therefore cannot be enacted as rapidly.

When no one stepped forward for public comment, however, the conversation ended there. A motion was passed to direct staff to review possible health and safety regulations to implement, and the discussion was over.

Nick Grenoble, a board member of Shelter JH, was encouraged by the conversation. “It was good to see the council looking into options to ensure safe and affordable housing for everyone,” he said. There was no argument among council members that these issues should not be addressed, though it remains unclear how long it might take for ordinances to be passed, and what town councilors specific stances will be.

“It would have been good to see them take action,” said Anne Marie de Puits, a performer and nanny who attended the meeting. She receives housing through her employers, but without them, she says she would not be able to live in Jackson.

For many, these conversations are not theoretical, but a matter of their health and ability to stay in town.

“I keeps holding onto some hope that I will find a situation that works for me, but I have been repetitively let down,” MacDonald lamented. “It’s becoming very difficult to trust anyone or have any hope.”

Recently she moved into a house in early October that was on the market. Her contract stated that she and her roommates would pay “an additional $250 a month if the landlord promised not to show the house and keep the house off the market” during their eight-month lease. Within two weeks of moving in, however, the landlord had shown the house twice, and it sold before the end of the month. She’s still trying to find a new housing situation.

Domenic Cuzzolina, a member of Shelter JH, says that their hope going forward is that the town can commit to implement tenant protections to avoid situations such as these. “Community means that people are able to rely on one another,” he said. The hope for Jackson is that its inhabitants are “collectively motivated,” and work to support one another.

In June, Shelter JH did just that when it held a rally in Jackson’s streets and town chambers to bring visibility to the plight of the many without homes or stable housing.

The power of the march was from the volume of people willing to come out and say, ‘It isn’t acceptable to continue to normalize extreme housing insecurity as a cultural experience,’” Cuzzolina said. Citizens, he says, have already taken action. “Now the onus is on all of us to make actual change.”  PJH

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