GUEST OPINION: Toward Tenant Protection

By on September 6, 2017

Mary Cobb-Erickson (far right) joins community members marching in support of housing solutions.

JACKSON HOLE, WY  — Town Council deserves a thank you for taking tenant protections seriously and considering the 30-day minimum notice ordinance. The measure is in line with the council’s strategic intent to ensure safe, healthy housing options for town residents. A 30-day minimum notice ordinance is a great first step in protecting our vulnerable tenant community. But it is thata first step.

I participated in the Tenant Protections Task Force that met to make recommendations to the Council on a number of issuesfrom minimum notice requirements to minimum habitability and repair requirements, to good landlord incentive programs, to additional anti-discrimination protections, to the ultimate bogeyman, rent stabilization.

Some of the issues on this list are fraught with complexity and conflict. The additions to our anti-discrimination policies are a critical conversation that our community must undertake in earnestextending far beyond housing. And rent stabilization is a hot button for landowners and developers. A minimum notice requirement seemed like a no-brainer, hence why we started there.

We began by agreeing that in this extremely tight market people should be given 30-days minimum notice for a no-cause eviction, non-renewal of lease, or a rent increase, and we even agreed that ideally people should be given as much as 60 to 90 days notice. With that as our starting place, I felt very positive about our ability to find some common ground, at least on the first bullet point on our list.

Positively, we ended with a four-to-three vote in favor of recommending a 30-day minimum notice ordinance, but the three that voted against the ordinance felt so strongly against it, that we did not present this to town electeds as a recommendation by the task force. In the end, we simply presented the outcome of our vote.

This came down to a debate, not over 30 or 60 or 90 days, but over the value of an ordinance and the role of government in our lives. So the debate instantly became political, taking us into a no-win territory.

As an ordained Episcopal priest, I was asked to participate on the Task Force as a representative of the faith community. From that perspective, I feel like I failed in my assigned task. How could I have steered the conversation into one of values and human dignity, toward compassion rather than politics and property rights?

In an ideal world perhaps market pressures would create a balanced rental market and all tenants would be treated fairly and humanely, or we could count on the goodness of humanity to do the right thing. But I have heard too many horror stories of families scrambling for a place to live after being forced from their homes with no notice, or having to deal with a massive rent increase without a comparable pay increase.

Ultimately we must ask ourselves how we as a community are going to respondnot to an abstract “housing crisis,” but to the real problems that our lack of rental stock creates in real human lives in our community every day. And what does that response say about us as a community?

A 30-day minimum notice ordinance is a small step that says we believe all of our people should be treated with basic human dignity. It is a simple step with a pretty big message.

But, it is a first step that needs to be followed with basic habitability standards that would send an even stronger message of value and respect. We need to create a strong landlord incentive program for our small independent landlords to encourage them to make rooms and ARUs available as long-term rentals, sending them a message that we value their contribution to our community. We need to have thoughtful conversations about real discrimination and necessary additions to our anti-discrimination ordinance. Finally, housing and tenant advocates need to sit down with landlords, business owners, and developerswith compassionate hearts and open mindsto discuss creative ways to temper our skyrocketing rents. Because honestly, our renters cannot absorb much more.

People say all the time we are special because of our people. It is time for us to put our people first. All of them. PJH

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