Ga. Bill Would Protect Tenants Facing Unhealthy Living Conditions

For tenants, environmental hazards in their homes can lead to emergency room visits, missed days from school and, eventually, homelessness, said Pam Kraidler of the Health Law Partnership. Under Georgia House Bill 346, if a tenant were to complain about unsafe living conditions, and suffer a rental increase or eviction as a consequence, a retaliatory eviction could be halted, and the landlord could face civil penalties.

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Water leaks and sewage overflows. Rampant mold. Rat infestation.

Residents’ descriptions of such conditions in some Cobb County apartment complexes recently underscored the breadth of environmental hazards that tenants can face.

In Georgia, renters have the right to complain about unlivable conditions, and landlords have a legal duty to make necessary repairs. But advocates for tenants say it can be difficult to get such remedial action taken. They say many renters fear retaliation – including possible eviction – for making a complaint.

The state Legislature is considering a bill that would protect tenants from retaliation by a landlord after they file a complaint about unhealthy conditions.

House Bill 346 is sponsored by Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee. At a hearing last week on the legislation, Cooper cited the ‘‘terrible’’ conditions in certain Cobb apartments.

She pointed out that children’s asthma can be exacerbated by housing hazards.

“Mold is one of the leading causes of an asthma attack,’’ Cooper told a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee.

Asthma is a leading reason why children miss school, she added.

The problem is slum lords, negligent owners who fail to maintain decent conditions in their rental properties, Cooper said. Tenants who face unhealthy conditions often don’t have the money to go to a lawyer. And eventually, the landlord can move another family into the hazardous home, she added.

Susan Reif, an attorney with Georgia Legal Services Program, told lawmakers, “We tell clients that you have to weigh the risk of calling code enforcement, against the possibility of eviction.’’

Under House Bill 346, if a tenant were to complain about unsafe conditions, and suffer a rental increase or eviction as a consequence, a retaliatory eviction could be halted, and the landlord could face civil penalties.

More than 40 states have similar anti-retaliation laws, says Elizabeth Appley, an attorney representing the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. The center has organized a coalition that includes consumer groups, the Georgia Municipal Association and the Georgia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Georgia is the only state that does not provide a warranty of habitability, Appley says. To renters, it’s a guarantee that a rental property meets basic living and safety standards.

“Georgia has an incredibly landlord-friendly set of housing laws,’’ says John Gainey, an attorney for Atlanta Legal Aid.

Environmental hazards can lead to ER visits, missed days from school, and eventually homelessness, Pam Kraidler of the Health Law Partnership, told the subcommittee. The partnership is a collaboration among Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, the Georgia State University College of Law and Atlanta Legal Aid.

“No one should live in conditions like this,’’ Kraidler said. “Our clients are terrified of retaliation.’’

Michael Murphy, assistant for special projects to Cobb Commission Chairman Mike Boyce, said, “We need support from the state.’’

Most evictions, experts note, are related to tenants not paying their rent.

House Bill 346, meanwhile, is designed to deal with serious cases of landlord misconduct.

The Georgia Apartment Association, at the hearing on the bill, said it does not represent slum lords.

“Our hope is that they can craft a targeted measure to address abuse by an unscrupulous landlord while recognizing that the overwhelming majority of property owners do not engage in that type of activity,’’ Russ Webb, an association vice president, said Monday.

Appley said the Apartment Association and the Georgia Association of Realtors have signed off on the latest version of the tenant protection bill, which passed the House Judiciary Committee on Friday.

Cole Thaler of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation cites a high student turnover at an Atlanta public school that was linked to “highly dilapidated conditions’’ at a nearby apartment complex.

Tenants, he said, are often fearful of landlords and want to avoid eviction, which could lead to homelessness.

House Bill 346, Thaler said, “would protect tenants and send a message to slum lords.”

Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News