THE BUZZ 2: Minimum Notice Moves Forward

By on August 30, 2017

Despite objections from dominant landlords, minimum notice requirement for tenants hurdles first obstacle.

Jackson residents march on town hall in support of housing solutions last summer.  (Photo: Facebook)

JACKSON, WY – The message at Monday’s town council workshop was clear: always get a lease in writing. But in a rental market like Jackson’s, which largely favors landlords due the overwhelming demand for rentals, written leases are sometimes hard to come by. So, tenants, landlords and lawyers are going to have to figure out how to enforce a 30-day minimum notice ordinance on all leases, written or oral.

Despite the difficulties of enforcing such an ordinance, Monday afternoon Councilors moved to put a 30-day minimum notice ordinance on first reading at the September 5 council meeting.

“I don’t think 30-day notice is sufficient, but I think it’s an important first step,” said Mayor Pete Muldoon before casting his vote in favor of moving the ordinance forward.

According to the ordinance’s language, the 30-day notice requirement mandates landlords provide no fewer than 30-days notice before terminating a rental agreement “without cause.” In other words, if the tenants are in compliance with the terms of the lease and landlord wants to terminate the lease before the end of the lease term, the landlord must give their tenant 30-days notice in writing. As terms of the rental lease would also include the dollar amount of rent, rent increases are assumed to be covered in the 30-day notice requirement.

The ordinance is the first tangible result of a long-standing conversation about tenant protections in the valley. The saga began last summer, when ShelterJH, Jackson’s non-profit advocacy group founded by Mary Erickson and Jorge Moreno, surveyed Jackson residents about their housing woes. Tenant protections, and specifically a minimum notice requirement, emerged as one of the most pressing concerns.

Addressing the expressed concerns, the Council formed a tenant protections task force, comprised of landlords, tenants, lawyers and advocates, to determine what actions needed to be taken. But while the task force agreed that giving minimum notice is the right thing to do, they did not agree that it should be ordained. In July, the group came back to the council with no recommendations for legislating tenant protections.

Despite the task force’s lack of recommendations, the council decided they wanted to learn more about a minimum notice requirement and directed staff to research and craft an ordinance. Fast-forward one month, to Monday, and the ordinance was in front of them.

This time, the devil was in the details. Councilors questioned how the town could enforce such an ordinance without written lease agreements. The state of Wyoming recognizes oral leases as contracts, but they’re risky, said town attorney Audrey Cohen-Davis. “Under Wyoming law, you’re taking a chance if you have an oral agreement,” Cohen-Davis said. She said when she moved to Jackson after practicing law across the country, “oral agreements kind of dumbfounded me.”

So why, questioned councilor Don Frank, would the ordinance not just apply to written leases? He reasoned that would incentivize landlords to write leases, and tenants to ask for them. “My understanding is we’re trying to create language that gives tenants and landlords 30 days to adjust to changing conditions,” Frank said. “Do we have to include written or oral in the definitions? It seems to be building castles out of sand.”

Still, a lot of Jackson tenants and landlords don’t use written leases. “I lived for years as a renter in Jackson. Most of the time I had no lease at all,” said Councilman Jim Stanford. “There are a lot of these types of situations. It should be incumbent upon us to extend the same league of protection.” Written leases are ideal, Stanford said, but “that’s not always how the world works.”

Muldoon agreed. The most steadfast agreement between a landlord and a tenant is indeed a written lease, he said, but, “tenants don’t have the luxury of demanding that in Jackson.” In such a fragile housing market, you take what you can get.

Some didn’t think the ordinance was ready to move forward. During public comment, Brenda Wylie, an attorney representing Blair Place Apartments, outlined all the details that needed to be worked out. First: the penalty.

The penalty for non-compliance is up to $750 per day, per violation. That’s way too high, Wylie said. Often times, landlords give short notice to tenants due to “circumstances out of the landlord’s control.”

“There’s no nexus between the size of the penalty and the purpose of the ordinance,” Wylie said.

Wylie was also concerned about the definition, or lack thereof, of “without cause.”

Ordinance language mandates that “an owner may terminate a Rental Agreement without a cause” only if they give written notice 30 days in advance. But what does “without cause” mean, Wylie asked? What if a unit suddenly became inhabitable? What if it flooded, or a sewer pipe broke, or there was mold growing inside? Would a landlord be penalized for kicking out their tenants in such situations? “We can’t have a situation where a landlord is choosing not to terminate leases, and letting people live there when it’s not safe,” Wylie said.

But Cohen-Davis said situations such as these are already protected under state statute, putting Wylie’s hypothetical concerns to rest. She defended the $750 penalty as a maximum fine, not a blanket fine. It will be up to a judge’s discretion to determine how serious the violation, and how serious the fine. “It could be a dollar, depending on the facts,” Cohen-Davis said.

Still, councilors took Wylie’s comment to heart. Councilor Bob Lenz initially proposed extending the minimum notice window to 50 days. That way, tenants and landlords would have a full calendar month, and then some, to adjust. But after hearing concerns of the public, and the complications of the usage of oral-leases in town, Lenz wanted more time to deliberate.

“I’m not comfortable bringing this forward as an ordinance,” Lenz said. “There’s been a lot of discussion today. I’m interested in moving forward so people like Brenda Wylie can give their input.”

Frank echoed Lenz’s concerns. “I think this cake needs to be baked a little more,” he said. He supports the goal but was concerned about enforceability if tenants and landlords can’t both “do the work of having a written lease.”

But Lenz and Frank were outvoted.

Stanford reminded the council of the many workshops and discussions they already had about tenant protections. “There’s a good bit of work that’s been done,” he said. “There are opportunities for further discussion in the ordinance readings.”

Muldoon and Councilwoman Hailey Morton-Levinson also voted in favor of moving the ordinance to a first reading.

“We may think of additional issues, but I’m comfortable with continuing to talk to staff,” Muldoon said. The motion carried three-to-two. The ordinance will be presented to the Town Council for first reading September 5. PJH

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