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Slumlords beware: Virginia may give localities new power to go after poor housing conditions

by Wyatt Gordon/Virginia Mercury

The Capitol at dusk. Lawmakers have sent legislation to Gov. Glenn Youngkin giving localities new powers to go after substandard housing. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Republicans and Democrats rarely agreed on policy proposals during the past General Assembly session. However, a bill to expand localities’ power to go after slumlords received somewhat surprising bipartisan support. If signed by the governor, in a few months’ time cities and counties across the commonwealth could begin greater enforcement of dangerous and harmful living conditions against negligent landlords.

Mold, mildew, rodents and roaches

On the hottest day in June 2018 residents of a Newport News apartment complex reached out to Del. Cia Price, a Democrat who represents the area, asking for help against the heat after their air conditioning went out. In her quest to assist her constituents she discovered the alarming lack of protections tenants across the commonwealth face.

“Their living conditions were beyond anything I could have expected to be legal,” Price said. “The residents did everything they could to make these places a home for their families, and then the living room ceiling is falling in from a leak they reported six months ago. It was heartbreaking for them to be paying the amount they were paying and be so ashamed to have me come in and see it. The system is stacked against tenants if they don’t have legal counsel.”

Currently Virginia law expects tenants living in unsafe conditions to either sue their landlords directly or request that their locality send in code enforcement. Both possible pathways present problems, but the notion that vulnerable residents have the time or knowhow to take on corporate landlords’ lawyers is ludicrous, according to Mariko Lewis, a housing policy analyst for New Virginia Majority.

“A lot of times tenants don’t even know their rights, so often they will opt to just live with problems because they don’t know there is a way to fix it,” she said. “If they want to take their landlord to court and continue to live there, that’s a lot of stress on the tenant. They also have to keep paying their rent into escrow while suing.”

Arcane and outdated housing laws also make it hard for tenants to understand what does or does not comprise a building code violation. Upon getting involved with her heat-stricken constituents, Price discovered that if a landlord offers cooling such as fans or A/C in a lease, legally the landlord only has to cool the room to 80 degrees for that to be true. The accumulation of mold and mildew isn’t even considered a building code violation. A bill patroned by Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, sought to change that this year but died in the House.

Letting localities lead

If tenants are unable or unwilling to take on their landlords directly, currently their only other option is to call in their locality’s building code enforcement. As building code violations are considered low-grade misdemeanors in Virginia, landlords seldom face more than minimal fines — frequently as low as $50 per violation. Those fines may prove persuasive to small mom-and-pop landlords, but to the out-of-state corporate landlords making increasing inroads into the commonwealth’s housing market even a flurry of fines is often little more than a rounding error in their books.

Price directly witnessed the lack of effective enforcement while assisting her constituents seeking safer living conditions. “The fines are often cheaper than the cost to fix the problem, so out-of-town landlords just pay the fine,” she said. “The women we worked with wound up in a continual cycle of the bare minimum while their kids with asthma grew up in terrible living conditions.”

Given the ineffectiveness of existing fines, localities asked to intervene have to choose between doing nothing and leaving residents in terrible conditions or condemning the entire property, causing all residents to lose their housing. Should the governor sign HB802 into law, localities will soon receive one more tool to deploy against slumlords: taking them to court directly.

Under Price’s proposal, localities will be allowed to step in on behalf of tenants to seek an injunction against a landlord with proven building code violations and ask for damages. Once the court is involved, judges can order landlords to make necessary fixes, repay tenants for repairs they undertake themselves or waive a portion of their monthly rent as compensation for the hazardous conditions.

The bill is only designed to hold landlords accountable for safety and health standards, so apartment managers who don’t keep the gym equipment, pool, or other amenities up to their tenants’ liking are exempt. The narrowly tailored nature of the bill is partly what earned HB802 the backing of the Virginia Apartment and Management Association and the Apartment & Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington.

Should the governor sign the bill, questions still remain regarding the interest and capacity of localities to take on this expanded enforcement role given the bill’s permissive nature. “This could lead to easier and quicker fixes to unsafe living conditions, but it does depend on the locality and whether they choose to use this bill,” Lewis said. “We’re hoping it doesn’t take years of public outcry for implementation.”

Price hopes that the existence of a new tool that doesn’t kick residents out of their homes, keeps neighborhoods free of blight and prevents landlords from facing condemned properties will be enticing enough for localities to dedicate time and resources towards enforcement. After decades of tenants’ rights and housing policy being on the backburner in Virginia politics, the newfound bipartisan support to take on slumlords is an exciting sign of cultural change in the commonwealth to advocates like Christie Marra of the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

“It isn’t just urban areas that experience horrible conditions in multi-family residential buildings,” said Marra. “Our goal is to create a statewide legal atmosphere that offers tenants and localities the ability to choose what tool is best to ameliorate any given situation. Those landlords who don’t currently take their responsibilities seriously may begin to do so once these cases get filed and start receiving more attention.”

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