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Why a rental standards ordinance in New Orleans went from widely supported to deferred

 Tenants and allies hold a silent protest at City Council chambers on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022.
Halle Parker
Tenants and allies hold a silent protest at City Council chambers on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022.

Rats. Mold. Water leaks. Ceilings collapsing. Air conditioning units breaking during peak summer heat. Landlords refusing to make repairs — and renters worried they’ll get evicted if they speak up.

These are some of the deplorable conditions inside New Orleans rental housing, described by tenants and their advocates at a packed City Council hearing in late September. For over three hours, dozens of public commenters – including public health advocates and homeowners – voiced their support for an ordinance they hope would hold landlords accountable.

The “Healthy Homes” ordinance would set basic habitability standards for all rentals, require landlords to register their rental properties with the city, and protect renters from landlord retaliation if they report substandard living conditions.

But the proposal – which appeared to enjoy widespread backing at the Council, and has the support of the Mayor’s office – has since stalled.

The ordinance passed out of committee favorably last month, but now the Council has deferred voting on it twice, as they consider potential amendments. While little has been publicly stated about what exactly the Council might change, proponents of the measure fear a broad exception could be carved out for a wide swath of rental units across the city.

What the ordinance would do – and what could change

If approved by the Council, the ordinance – as it’s currently written – would effectively create New Orleans’ first citywide rental registry: each year, landlords would need to self-certify with the city that their rental units meet a list of basic habitability standards. Those requirements include having a working smoke detector, and ensuring there are no signs of mold or rodent infestations.

Most of those standards are already enshrined in the city’s Minimum Property Maintenance Code – with the important exception of a new air conditioning measure, which would stipulate that all rental units need to have adequate cooling systems to avoid extreme heat.

Any renter would be able to submit a complaint about substandard conditions to the city, and would be protected from retaliation by their landlord, like threats of eviction or rent raises. And if a landlord fails to fix violations promptly, they could risk being fined, and in extreme situations, losing their certificate of compliance and having their power connection shut off.

For extreme circumstances, the ordinance also outlines measures to help renters who could be displaced if their homes are found to be in violation of the habitability standards. Eligible renters would be able to apply for grants from a city fund to help them secure new housing.

To help enforce those standards – and take the onus off of tenants to report violations – the ordinance would set up a new, proactive screening system.

Rentals would be subject to inspections every three years, with some exceptions. Landlords who own properties with four or fewer units onsite – in their own name, rather than through a business entity, like a limited liability corporation – would be exempt.

“These are people who typically live on the other side of their double or triple,” said Maxwell Ciardullo, director of policy and communications for the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, which helped draft the ordinance.

Presumably, those landlords have a vested interest in keeping up the standards of their rentals, because they often live onsite, Ciardullo said. That means the ordinance would target “investment properties owned as an LLC” or “any building with five units or more” for regular inspections, he added.

But now, proponents of the ordinance worry that the Council could grant an even broader exception to all owners of properties with four or fewer units, including landlords who own numerous smaller rentals across the city. Housing advocates say that two-thirds of rental units in the city are in smaller buildings, rather than large apartment complexes.

At the September hearing, housing developers and members of real estate and apartment associations expressed concerns that the ordinance would burden property owners with fees and ultimately drive up the cost of rent. The ordinance would create a $60 annual registration fee and a $150 periodic inspection fee.

They also objected to being treated the same way as notorious landlords of larger apartment complexes, like Joshua Bruno. Bruno’s apartments were shut down after dangerous conditions were uncovered – including raw sewage leaks and rampant mold – and Bruno went bankrupt earlier this year.

“I’m somewhat offended by being lumped in with him, in the way that this ordinance is going to affect the people who are the good actors,” said David Birdsong, a board member of the New Orleans Real Estate Investors Association.

Council Vice President JP Morrell, who sponsored the proposal, accused these landlords and their representatives of “fear mongering.” But he invited them to work with him on finding a compromise for smaller property owners. Weeks later, the Council has yet to publish any amendments or discuss any proposed changes in public.

Tensions rise

It’s not the first time that the Council has considered — then deferred — an ordinance for rental conditions. During their time on the Council, Mayor LaToya Cantrell and District Attorney Jason Williams co-authored a similar ordinance.

Facing pushback from landlords, the Council deferred the ordinance for months before letting it fizzle out.

Five years later, the current Council had planned to take up the Healthy Homes ordinance for a final vote at its Oct. 20 meeting. Upon learning that the Council planned to defer the measure for another two weeks, tenants and their allies staged a silent protest at the Council chambers.

“Based on the suggestions of a few landlords who were not courageous enough to state their opposition to this ordinance publicly and on the record, the Council is now considering weakening the Healthy Homes ordinance by giving a free pass to the owners of every single, double, triple and four-plex in the city,” said Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, to reporters outside of City Hall on Thursday.

At least half of the complaints the center receives for health and safety violation cases come from these smaller buildings, Hill added.

 Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, addresses reporters outside of City Hall on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022.
Halle Parker
Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, addresses reporters outside of City Hall on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022.

The potential carve out could have particularly high stakes for renters who are undocumented immigrants, advocates said at a separate protest outside City Hall on Wednesday evening. Larger apartment complexes often require applicants to submit social security numbers and other information before renting, which means undocumented people are forced to rent from smaller property owners with more lax screening systems.

“Too often when a renter asks for repairs to be made, for things to be fixed around the house, landlords will just make excuses and never come to actually repair them. Or worse: they’ll say, ‘That’s it, you’re out of my house,’” said Rocael Dionicio, a member of Unión Migrante, an immigrants rights group, through an interpreter.

At the Oct. 20 meeting, Morrell told proponents he was caught off guard by their pushback, having only seen it on social media. He said he had meetings with both proponents and opponents as recently as Tuesday to hash out potential changes, and told advocates if they wish to see an ordinance passed without amendments, they could find a new champion for it.

Despite Morrell’s challenge, Hill said the Fair Housing Action Center plans to continue working with him to get the measure passed.

The Council plans to take up the ordinance at its meeting on Nov. 3.

Disclaimer: New Orleans Public Radio reporter Carly Berlin previously worked for the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center as an Investigations Fellow through a service corps program.

Editor's Note: This story was updated to include additional information about the ordinance.

Carly Berlin is the New Orleans Reporter for WWNO and WRKF. She focuses on housing, transportation, and city government. Previously, she was the Gulf Coast Correspondent for Southerly, where her work focused on disaster recovery across south Louisiana during two record-breaking hurricane seasons. Much of that reporting centered on the aftermath of Hurricanes Laura and Delta in Lake Charles, and was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.

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