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Ga. House bill would help tenants fight retaliatory evictions over repair complaints
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The Georgia House recently passed a bill that allows tenants to file a counter claim if they are being evicted or if their rents are being raised, because they filed a complaint about a home's condition with local code enforcement. - photo by Scott Rogers

Renters are sometimes evicted or have their rents raised when they complain to their landlords or local code enforcement agencies seeking fixes to their residences.

It could be a leaky roof, a broken appliance, rodent or bug infestations, or simply poor construction they seek to have remedied.  

But because contractual leases often have stipulations that allow a landlord to evict for most any reason with, typically, a 30- or 60-day notice, renters have little legal recourse.

“It’s a lot easier for (landlords) to just move on,” said Anthony Davenport, a staff attorney with Georgia Legal Services in Gainesville who leads an eviction prevention aid program serving low-income tenants with private landlords.

But a new bill that passed the Georgia House this month, House Bill 346, would give renters some ammunition to fight back.

“It’s a small bill, but a huge step,” Davenport said.

The hardest part of his job, Davenport said, is informing tenants of their rights “but then I have to go in with the caveat at the end.”

That warning is simple: You may face retribution.

As The Times has previously reported, for low-income families struggling to find affordable housing in a tight rental market, substandard apartments, homes, and mobile or manufactured units are often the last best option because they tend to be cheaper and more available to rent.

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Attorney Anthony P. Davenport is an attorney at Georgia Legal Services who helps low-income families facing eviction. - photo by Scott Rogers

State Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville, who owns several rental properties, said he voted against the bill because the language wasn’t vetted well and leaves landlords taking too much blame.  

“I look at things as, I own the property,” he said. “I am the investor that makes all the adjustments to the property. But by a certain standard, I’m held accountable.”

The accounting comes in the form of a lease agreement, Dunahoo said, which can be negotiated and binds each party to certain responsibilities when it comes to the maintenance of a residence.

Sometimes, Dunahoo said, tenants damage or act intentionally destructive to properties they rent.

“I want to make sure there is transparency because we do have slumlords,” Dunahoo said.

But, he added, “what this bill does is, basically, it takes away (the landlord and tenant) with skin in the game” and it “opens up too many cans of worms for attorneys, for lawsuits.”

Hall County Reps. Matt Dubnik and Lee Hawkins voted in favor of the bill. Rep. Timothy Barr, who represents a portion of South Hall, was excused from the vote.

Davenport said he regularly serves clients whose landlords retaliate with threats of eviction or rent hikes if repair requests are made or code violations are reported.

Georgia does not require a “warranty of habitability” that mandates housing meets basic living and health safety standards, although the warranty is usually considered implied from a legal standpoint.  

Instead, Davenport said, Georgia requires a “duty to repair.”

It’s a “sticky” legal nuance, he added, with landlords having certain responsibilities to perform needed maintenance.

But, in some instances, such as when a tenant claims that housing conditions are unsafe or affecting their health, liability can be hard to prove. And costly, too.

“There’s not really a lot you can do to bring a suit directly,” Davenport said. “It’s just landlord friendly.”

In Georgia, the bill would still need to pass the Senate and receive the governor’s signature to become law.

If that happens, it would give tenants the opportunity to prove their eviction is retaliatory and have it stopped, while also placing civil penalties on the landlord.

More than 40 states have similar laws already on the books, according to the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, a nonprofit public interest group rallying support for the bill.

Housing in Hall County

What: Presentation by Urban Land Institute, a global land-use think tank examining affordable housing needs in the area.

When: 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 12

Where: Gainesville Public Safety Complex, 701 Queen City Parkway

Regional events