Saturday, August 16, 2008

Tenants Rights in New Orleans

Tenants Rights
Phil LaMancusa
True story, A neighbor of mine is lamenting a leaking roof, I call City Hall to inquiry about her rights as a tenant. The woman on the other end says, “I didn’t know they had any”.
Well she was wrong of course. Although tenants rights haven’t changed much in Louisiana since the early eighteen hundreds (that’s right!) you do have one overwhelmingly simple and basic right. You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to suck it up. And if you’re reading the right to ‘shut up and pay your rent’ here, you’re reading right.
Here’s how it works. You find a place that you can afford and maybe it even suits your needs. The landlord hands you a years lease and you sign it, most of the time not bothering to read it. Face it, most people are on the verge of desperation when they finally get to that point. You spend a year making it as livable as you can and what happens? Your lease is up and there is no new lease, you now join the ranks of the month to month renters, which means you have only the above right.
In the first year, if you’ve registered (and only if you’ve registered) your lease at City Hall, you are pretty much guaranteed a place to live with repairs and maintenance supplied by the landlord at a specific price: your rent. After that all bets are off. This is the state that most of us are in. It only takes five to ten days to get you out after that. You’re now at the mercy of the landlord. The kindness of strangers, so to speak.
During World War Two, renters in the USA were given a right called rent control, which assured them of a definite place to live at a specific price for as long as they could afford to live there. Any rent increases were carefully monitored and minimized. After the war only ten states kept it. Louisiana did not keep it.
Do you want rent control? It’s not easy to get. In 1987 the folks in Milwaukee voted for and passed a referendum in favor of rent control. The state legislature annulled it.
Then again it is easy to get rent control. All a city has to do is have its mayor put it into effect. Simple, huh? Don’t hold your breath.
In response to the Civil Rights movement of the sixties, The Federal Government funded a legal service to craft a model renter-landlord code. It was drafted in 1972 and approved by the American Bar Association in 1974. Today most states use the Uniform Residential Landlord Tenant Act (URLTA) as a guideline when writing their own laws regarding landlords and tenants. Louisiana has not.

However, the URLTA does not cover security of tenure, control over rent increases, reduced rent for reduced services, freedom of speech in relationship with the landlord, condominium conversion protection for tenants, appointment of a receiver to manage the building if the landlord fails to or the payment of interest and separate handling of security deposits. All things that we already don’t have.
It does limit the landlord’s free access, hold a standard of a warranty of habitability, and protects against landlord’s retaliation.
Do you think that your landlord’s got you by the cajones? I’m sure as heck that he does.
Here’s what the New Orleans Legal Assistance office recommends: read your lease carefully to learn what the landlord is responsible for and what your responsibilities are. Look carefully around your new place and make sure everything works and is in good order. Have someone as a witness and take photos. Get everything in writing and get and keep all receipts.
The law does state that if you do not get your deposit back in thirty days from moving you have to be told why not, and if you’re not to get all of it back, why that also. However, it’s still you word against the landlord’s, and guess who gets the benefit if the doubt? Right.
You have the right to make necessary repairs that the landlord won’t (given sufficient notice) and take it off your rent and the landlord has the right to evict you with no reason. Simple.
Remember, it’s the landlords that write leases and your rights depend on what the lease says. In the past it has been the landlords who wrote the laws governing renters and property, and those laws are still in effect, by the landlord-for the landlord. It’s landlords that can afford to attend political fundraisers to keep those laws in place.
And without someone with a little more authority than me, choosing to change things the renter will always take it in the shorts. And no, Virginia, not all landlords are mean, evil, money grubbing monsters that take their families to Europe, on your dime, as your bathroom ceiling caves in, but there’s nothing stopping them from becoming exactly that.

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