THE BUZZ: Sheltering JH Renters

By on December 15, 2016

Will tenant protections move the needle on the valley’s historic housing crisis?

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JACKSON HOLE, WY – Jackson Hole’s housing woes are plentiful. However, members of the housing advocacy group Shelter JH see a way to start tackling what some view as the impossible. Though there may be a battle ahead to implement tenant protections, they could help temper a housing crisis that continues to force more and more people out of the valley.

Having canvassed in Jackson neighborhoods in the early fall, Shelter JH organizers reported an overwhelming response from folks asking for renter protections. A Shelter JH participant who preferred to remain anonymous said he heard stories of tenant mistreatment.

One person in a month-to-month rental recounted a landlord unwilling to fix her heat in November. The tenants could not afford to pay for both the repair and rent. “Without a lease they felt vulnerable, and they had no course of action to take to fix the problem. This sort of unbalanced relationship between landlords and tenants is causing serious issues in a place like this, where moving is not always an option,” the Shelter JH canvasser noted.

An attorney in the group researched possible solutions. On November 18, the Jackson Town Council received a letter from Shelter JH. It recommended the council examine six tenant protection ordinance measures: notice requirements, maintaining a level of habitability and repair, non-discrimination and fair housing, non-retaliation against tenants seeking protection, standard lease content, and rent stabilization. At a council workshop on November 21, councilors advised town attorney Audrey Cohen Davis to research the suggestions further.

Shelter JH policy chair Christine Walker signed the letter to the council. Walker, former executive director of the Teton County Housing Authority, believes “the easiest ordinance to pass is requiring landlords give adequate notice” before evicting a tenant, not renewing a lease, or for a rent increase.

The habitability issue, requiring landlords to ensure a minimum standard of livability, such as working heat and appliances, “may be easy to pass but complicated to regulate,” she noted. Implementing such a measure would likely take hiring someone to oversee the process or mandating another office, such as the inspection department, to conduct inspections for rental health and safety. In order to do that, the town will have to embark on a likely long and arduous process of detailing inspection parameters.

Walker suggested the road ahead requires dialogue and education.

“A good first step would be to educate landlords and offer tools to improve their units, offer assistance with leases,” she said. “A landlord might not be aware of situations they’re putting their renters in.”

The hardest area to gain traction, she noted, would be a rent stabilization measure. But she cautioned it would be used only to prevent egregious rent hikes, like the 40 percent rent increase at Blair Apartments in summer 2015.

Mayor-elect Pete Muldoon was an early organizer of Shelter JH. During the election he was vocal about the need for tenant protections. Muldoon was quick to point out Jackson has never had a “free market” in housing. He cited the need for protections because renters are currently at a disadvantage and “can’t take their business elsewhere.” He stressed the importance of avoiding unforeseen consequences with future protective ordinances.

“We need to figure out the details, and make sure we’re not doing more harm than good,” he said.

Councilman Jim Stanford was unable to attend the November 21 workshop when Shelter JH’s suggestions were discussed, but he says he is “hopeful the full council will be able to effectively address the issue after the new year” and find fair tenant protections. He said he read some good input from community members regarding tenant protections but is hesitant to weigh in until the staff returns with answers on legality of the measures.

Stanford and Councilman Bob Lenz had both asked that tenant protections be added to the council agenda back in May when they were informed about the Virginian Apartment evictions. There had also been reports at the apartments of tenants doing their own repairs.

Lenz highlighted the need to talk about protections for displaced residents in the case of new developments. Multiple homes on a lot that formerly housed six people replaced by homes that house a fraction of the people is problematic, Lenz said, especially when those former occupants aren’t given enough time to find new housing.

He said it’s worth talking about tenant protections especially in Jackson’s intense and limited rental market. When asked about tenants who have to make their own repairs or leave, Lenz said, “You can always move out.” He then paused, seemingly aware that such a response begs the same question of where to go next.

For Councilman Don Frank, ensuring all stakeholders are in a conversation about renter protections is paramount. He is waiting for town and county legal staff to explore renter protections and precedents, but he is also cognizant of potential issues. Frank says he wants to be fair. “Rising labor, materials and cost of living everywhere impacts both tenant capacity to match housing resources with income,” he said. “Similarly, landlords face increases in goods, services and maintenance burdens.”

Councilwoman Hailey Morton-Levinson did not respond to a request for comment via phone and email.

Grand Teton Property Management oversees properties throughout Jackson Hole. Owner Christina Korpi is licensed and regulated by the Wyoming Real Estate Commission, as well as federal fair housing laws, in order to manage and lease properties owned by others.

GTPM already uses general guidelines and uniform practices for leasing and habitability that provide for equitable and fair processes. Some of these rules apply to private property owners and others do not.

Korpi said she is bound by law to provide leases and other such contractual measures and local ordinances would not change much for her business. She was uncertain how new ordinances would affect private citizens. However, she stressed: “Leases are just smart.”

Implementing tenant protections is likely to have some opposition in the valley. But some of the likely foes were not totally anti-renter protection.

Jackson Hole Tea Party’s new executive director Kerry Winterer says he too believes the way forward would be through extensive dialogue. Guided by the principles of free enterprise and limited government, Winterer said JHTP could likely support a non-discrimination measure or any other measure that didn’t tread on property rights. Rent stabilization, or giving a tenant the right over an owner to extend a lease, he said, was questionable.

Organizations like Shelter JH, Winterer said, are well intentioned, but he fears they are not fully thinking things through. He expressed concern with the unintended consequences of some of the protective measures, a view also shared by some members of Shelter JH.

“Just because the town can pass an ordinance doesn’t mean they should,” he said.

When asked about local businesses suffering due to housing insecurity issues, Winterer suggested landlords and business owners sit down to problem solve between themselves.

There have been several vocal opponents to perceived expansion of local government. One of the more prominent groups is Save Historic Jackson Hole. However, even SHJH is alarmed by news of some local rental practices.

SHJH’s Jake Nichols stated in an email that the organization is generally opposed to renter protections and they feel state statutes offer enough protection for both owners and renters.

However, SHJH is troubled by isolated incidents of unfair evictions, subpar, unhealthy or unsafe living conditions, or fear of retaliation for repair requests. Nichols reminded that landlords can be “victims of inconsiderate renters who bolt from their agreements or cause damage to property that is ultimately the owner’s responsibility.” A lease is beneficial for all parties, he added, and rental caps are acceptable for government subsidized and government provided housing.

Town attorney Cohen-Davis declined to comment until her office formally presents information at a scheduled town council workshop on February 21, 2017. PJH

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