THE BUZZ: Protection Misnomer

By on July 18, 2017

Tenant Protections Task Force can’t decide who it really wants to protect.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – After months of meetings, the seven stakeholders of the Tenant Protections Task Force could not agree on legislative recommendations to bring to Jackson Town Council at a Monday workshop. The lack of accord suggested that even among the group there was dissonance on the very purpose of the task force itself, Mary Erickson, task force member and co-founder of advocacy group Shelter JH, said.

While some members called for “equal” protections for landlords and tenants, others said such concerns silence the community’s most vulnerable populations for whom the task force was created. Still, town councilors agreed to begin moving forward with tenant protections, and voted to create an education program and consider a minimum-notice ordinance.

The task force, comprised of landowners, tenants and housing advocates, did unanimously recommend an education program for both landlords and tenants, which will be offered online in English and Spanish through the housing department. But they could not recommend any ordinances or legislative protections for local renters, which called the very name and purpose of the group into question. 

Task force members include Erickson, public health representative Emily Freeland, Shelter JH board member and immigration attorney Rosie Read, Blair Place owner Todd Oliver and property managers Tina Korpi, Monay Olson and Kevin Kavanaugh. It was a diverse group, Erickson said, but where interests conflicted, the group’s purpose was lost. 

“My assumption was everyone who agreed to participate would agree on the basic principle of tenant protections,” Erickson said in a public comment. “Several members seemed more concerned with protecting landlords’ rights than tenants’ rights.” There seemed to be a lack of understanding, she said, of the “real power dynamics” between tenants and landlords.

“I felt like a lot of our conversations were about convincing landlords that tenants have rights, or that their rights are not being respected, or there’s even a problem. There’s not an understanding that there is a real problem here.”

The easiest ordinance to present to council, Erickson said, was a minimum notice requirement mandating all landlords give at least 30 days notice of any rent increases or evictions.

Erickson told council members that Shelter JH suggested the task force after surveying hundreds of people last summer and concluding that tenant protections were a top priority for the workforce. The second most common concern, she said, was a minimum notice requirement. “It seems like a no-brainer to me.”

Erickson noted that while all members agreed that a 30-day minimum notice should be the standard, they could not agree on whether the town should ordain it. Three members who happen to be property managers opposed an ordinance.

Where’s the proof?

Kavanaugh said creating an ordinance before collecting empirical data is a “solution looking for a problem.”

“There’s no quantifiable proof of a significant problem,” he said, “nor an effort to collect such data. We’re putting the cart before the horse.”

Kavanaugh, who manages the luxury property management company Clear Creek Group, told PJH that despite the name, the tenant protections task force is about more than tenant rights. Its mission is to “provide support to both tenants and landlords that result in safer, more stable rental housing within the Town of Jackson,” he said, citing the staff report.

There are two sides to this issue, he said, and more regulations only discourage landowners from renting their properties, which ultimately lowers the housing supply and contributes to the housing crisis. “One thing I wanted to do was make sure I wasn’t part of a group that was going to make a decision that distracted from workforce housing.” And how do you solve a lack of workforce housing, he asked? You increase the supply.

Mayor Pete Muldoon countered that the housing market “is a tool we employ to reach a goal, not the goal itself.” Of course the town should work toward balancing supply and demand, he said, but that takes time. “We’re making progress, but until we do so we have to find another tool. Our housing market should serve our community, not the other way around.”

Still, until empirical data suggests bad landlord behavior “outweighs losing workforce housing,” Kavanaugh sees no need for more regulations. “Give me data before I’m gonna shrink workforce housing,” Kavanaugh said.

Equal abuse?

But Erickson says there is plenty of evidence—just talk to people who comprise the local workforce. “Do we need everyone to show up and tell their stories, because there are hundreds,” she told PJH. “I hear them all the time.”

Stories like Jorge Moreno’s, which PJH has told before. In 2015, he was kicked out of his home of 16 years with only three days notice. He eventually found housing at Blair Place Apartments, but almost immediately learned his rent would increase by 40 percent. He has been fighting to stay in his place ever since.

Or Jeremy Weiss’s, who got 20 days of notice that he had to be out of his house, while he was traveling abroad.  “I had repeatedly asked for a lease,” Weiss said in public comment, “but was never provided with one.” He was 40, homeless, and unable to afford a security deposit on a new place despite having a “stable and good job.” He was fortunate enough to borrow money from his boss, but recognized that not everyone has that fortune. “I solidly support this ordinance,” he said.

Sure, an ordinance wouldn’t force all landlords into compliance, and “bad landlords” would still break the law. But the idea behind an ordinance is to codify good behavior, Erickson said, because it does make a difference over time. “Ordinances do set a standard for the community.Sometimes just having an ordinance in place makes people stop and think.”

Still, Kavanaugh and two other task force members agreed that recommending an ordinance would be too hasty a move. “I heard really compelling stories last night,” Kavanaugh admitted, but “emotionally driven decisions aren’t always best for the community as far as broad-sweeping policy goes.”

Besides, tenants aren’t the only ones abused in these relationships. Kavanaugh rents property in Teton Valley, and gets “beat up all the time” by tenants who fail to take care of the space. “Written leases are being breached by both landlords and tenants,” he said.

Kavanaugh compared Jackson’s market to Manhattan in terms of cost of living. In fact, New York created a Tenant Protection Unit (TPU) in 2012 to “to increase compliance with [rent] laws and further protect rent-regulated tenants.” In 2016, TPU returned more than $1.3 million in overcharged rent to tenants who did not realize they were paying too much.

Mountain towns like Jackson—Telluride, Aspen, Sun Valley—have no such body, and like Jackson, they largely rely on state statutes to govern tenant-landlord disputes. But, Muldoon noted, Jackson’s market is markedly different from the rest of the state.

“I think there is ample empirical data that shows that renters in Jackson have few good options, and it’s clear that our state law assumes that there is a functioning market of not just supply, but demand,” Muldoon said. “It’s true functioning markets can self-regulate to a degree, and it’s clear that we do not have one here.”

Beginning, not the end

Councilors largely agreed there wasn’t enough information to move forward with a minimum notice, but they were at least partially swayed by some of the testimony they heard. Ultimately, they moved to direct staff to develop an educational program for landlords and tenants, and come back to the council with information on a minimum 30-day notice requirement.

Twice, Muldoon suggested an amendment that would also explore ordaining protection for tenants based on gender identity and immigration status, two classes not protected under state statute. Both times, councilors shied away from more direction.

“I suggest to who’s interested to come back with a written motion as to what you want covered,” Councilor Bob Lenz said. But Lenz also said that he is “certainly into a 30-day notice requirement.”

Frank echoed Kavanaugh’s sentiment that safe, healthy renting situations are the responsibility of both parties. “There’s no reason for a landlord to not be willing to provide safe, decent housing” he said. “I reject the idea that that’s a burden. It’s clear as a bell: if I want secure housing, I have an obligation to be as good a tenant as I can be. We’re all responsible for our own behaviors.”

The motion carried unanimously with Councilor Jim Stanford absent.

Erickson is happy for any progress, but hopes this is the beginning of the conversation, not the end. “I’m glad that we’re moving forward on minimum requirements and looking at possibility of ordinance,” Erickson said. “But I’m a little frustrated that’s as far as we’ve gotten. We won’t move forward unless we continue to put pressure on them. This is step one. Maybe.” PJH

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