Georgia House OKs pair of tenants’ rights bills

By Maggie Lee

In most states, tenants who complain about rats or mold or other problems don’t have to worry about unfair evictions as much as Georgians do.

But a bill approved by the state House would give Georgians the right to take landlords to court if they feel they’ve been evicted just for demanding cleanliness and repairs.

“This law is a ban on retaliatory evictions of tenants,” said state Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, sponsor of House Bill 346. “This is about slum landlords.”

She spent most of her short speech on the state House floor talking about mold — and how it can trigger asthma, even deadly asthma, in children.

State House chamber. Credit: Kelly Jordan

The situation her bill is trying to fix is when someone is in a crummy or even dangerous rental, but is afraid they’ll be evicted if they complain —  or evicted on some other pretext — and will have nowhere else to go.

State Rep. “Able” Mable Thomas, D-Atlanta spoke in favor of the bill. She said it’s one of the better pieces of legislation this year because it gives tenants the right to speak up about substandard conditions and not fear retribution.

“You may get something affordable in Atlanta, but what you’re getting is not quality,” said Thomas.

The bill would give tenants the right to complain and address issues without fear of being thrown out in the street, said state Rep. David Dreyer, D-Atlanta, a bill supporter.

“Right now, legal aid attorneys will advise tenants that before they complain: be aware that you can get evicted in the next 30 days because of your complaint and that’s not illegal under Georgia law,” he said.

The bill protects a tenant’s right to complain to the landlord, complain to the local code compliance department or to participate in or start a tenants’ organization. Now, the tenant has to be paying their rent and following other building rules, but if they are a tenant in good standing and do any of those three things and then get evicted, that tenant will be able to bring the landlord to court.

If the tenant wins the case, they may recover one month’s rent and $500 plus any actual damages, court costs or attorney fees.

The state House passed that bill by 131 to 25 on Tuesday afternoon.

A few hours later, state representatives unanimously passed a bill that changes the eviction process in some places. House Bill 492 sponsor state Rep. Bonnie Rich, R-Suwanee, told a committee earlier in March that there are some landlords who hold an eviction action over their tenants’ heads, sometimes for years.

Essentially, eviction is a multi-step process, and some landlords go through part of it but never follow through on the eviction. They just hold that threat of a quick eviction over the heads of their tenants.

Her bill causes that interim step, that “writ of possession,” to expire after 30 days, unless there’s a good cause for delay. She said many courts already do this; her bill just brings uniformity statewide.

Dreyer also said there’s more to be done in the tenants’ rights space.

For one, he’d like to see a strong “habitability” law, meaning that a rental property has to meet certain conditions, that it’s fit to live in.

In some states, he said, tenants can withhold rent if their place is unlivable. That’s not the case in Georgia.

It’s pretty much too late in the session for any bill on habitability to become law this year.

But the ones the House passed this week may pass this year. They now move to the state Senate, where they’d need approval before being sent to the desk of Gov. Brian Kemp. The annual legislative session ends on April 2.

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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