THE BUZZ: Wanted: Renter Relief

By on March 28, 2017

Tenants in the valley may soon rest easier after town council agreed to move forward in conversations about tenant protections.

‘This is perfectly fine… no problems here.’

JACKSN HOLE, WY – Cody Stearn’s* roof leaked all winter, and he put his safety on the line trying to fix it. “I almost fell off [the roof] a couple of times,” he said.

The house he lives in is not his own. He is among the many Jackson residents renting the roof over his head. But keeping that roof from collapsing was a huge responsibility this year—one he doesn’t believe should fall on him.

“I don’t know how many hours I spent shoveling the roof, doing a lot of stuff I really shouldn’t have to do as a tenant,” Stearn said.

Despite multiple pleas to his landlord, who lives out of town most of the year, Stearn and his roommate lived under their leaky roof for most of the winter. The problem started last year, when water began leaking from underneath the carpet. Requests for repairs were most often met with silence or animosity from their landlord. “It was a super big thing to get things done, and things got super heated via email,” Stearn said.

Situations like Stearn’s are not uncommon in the valley. In Fact, Stearn considers them standard. “Unfortunately in Wyoming, we don’t really have the rights as tenants,” he said.

But that could soon change. The town council is considering a compilation of 10 tenant protection recommendations put together by Shelter JH, the organization advocates Jorge Moreno and Mary Erickson founded after Moreno learned of a near 40 percent rent increase at his Blair Place Apartment.

At a town hall workshop last Monday, town councilors unanimously agreed to pursue a stakeholder group to review health and safety standards and help guide the conversation. Because housing is a public health concern, the stakeholder group will include representatives from Teton County Public Health.

Secure housing, or lack thereof, is one of Teton County’s top 10 public health crises identified by the county’s Community Needs Health Assessment. Teton County Public Health director Jodi Pond said that “severe housing” is of particular concern. Severe housing, Pond explained, is a housing unit that lacks complete kitchen facilities or sufficient plumbing, is severely over-crowded, or severely cost burdened. Twenty percent of homes in Teton County are considered “severe.” Compared to the state’s 12 percent, Pond said, that number is alarming. “That’s where we originally got interested in this discussion,” Pond said.

Teton County Public Health’s contribution to the stakeholder discussions will focus on ways to improve health standards in housing units, and also explore the ways that housing insecurity for renters contributes to overall community health.

“From a health standpoint, [housing] is a ripple effect,” Pond said. “Whether that be mental well-being or physical well-being, being housing insecure is definitely related to your health.”

Households that spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent and utilities, for example, are less likely to have money for other necessities like food and healthcare. Housing insecurity, food insecurity, access to medical care and mental health are all closely entwined, Pond said, and need to be considered in conversations about tenant protections.

Councilors also agreed to consider a resolution to Contested Case Rules. Staff was asked to prepare a resolution for the council’s consideration at the next town workshop.

Revised Contested Case Rules, Erickson explained, would give tenants a “detailed and streamlined” process for reporting issues like Stearn’s, according to staff report language. Erickson said that in such an unstable market that is also in such high demand, the stakes of confronting a landlord are high. “For the most vulnerable people, they’re not going to file a case. They’re not going to rock the boat because they don’t want to lose their apartment. They don’t want to put themselves at risk.”

Indeed, Stearn worries about his future in his current home. Things have been resolved and tensions between he and his landlord have subsided. But Stearn said he fears his landlord will retaliate when the time comes to resign the lease.

Density and demand make the valley’s lack of tenant protections even more consequential for people like Stearn.

Erickson noted that in the case of Blair Apartments, even after rent hikes drove many tenants away in 2015, there was a surplus of people in need of housing who were ready to re-occupy the units. “People aren’t pricing themselves out of the market,” she said. So losing a tenant is really only a threat to the tenant. To the landlord, it’s a temporary inconvenience, but they are almost guaranteed to fill the vacancy.

One of the questions for staff and the stakeholder group to consider is whether to deal with rental inspections on a case-by-case basis, or develop standards and requirements to do inspections periodically and proactively.

“It’s a lot less expensive to do it based on complaints,” Erickson said. “But doing it proactively is a bigger deal. If we’re going to have an impact, that’s how we have to do it.”

There is a concern that requiring inspections will deter landlords and property owners from renting their property. “If we’re going to start inspecting rentals, that’s a huge undertaking,” said town administrator Bob McLaurin. “If we establish minimum standards and start enforcing them, we’re going to lose rental units.”

But that’s a risk mayor Mayor Pete Muldoon says he is willing to take. “I don’t like the idea of complaint-based enforcement,” he said. Muldoon, a renter himself, agrees that people often fail to report deficiencies in their housing for fear of losing their place. Their only option currently, he said, is to address issues through civil court.

“One of the big pieces we’re trying to fix here is imbalance,” Muldoon said. He wants to avoid “asking someone to do something they’re not equipped to do, like file a lawsuit.”

Stearn didn’t have to take his concerns that far. For the time being, he is on good terms with his landlord and hopes to maintain a healthy relationship. “I love where I live,” he said. But a stable roof over his head should not be too much to ask. “Honestly, we just feel like we deserve a habitable, healthy place to live.” PJH

*Name has been changed.

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