The Atlanta City Council approved legislation Tuesday advocating stronger renter protections, but it’s largely symbolic—a non-binding call for the Georgia legislature to repeal state laws, like a ban on rent control, that hinder crafting a Tenant’s Bill of Rights for Atlantans.
But some of the measures proposed by freshman City Councilmembers Byron Amos and Jason Dozier could materialize, according to Amos and housing law experts from the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation (AVLF).
While instituting rent control—one of the resolution’s six suggestions—would require repealing Georgia’s decades-old statute banning it, the city council does have the power to do things like create an Office of the Tenant Advocate to help lower-income renters navigate the many hurdles to housing stability.
Amos told Atlanta Civic Circle on Wednesday that he expects ordinances that realize much of the Tenant’s Bill of Rights to emerge in the coming months, after he strategizes with his council colleagues and Mayor Andre Dickens.
“At least we have on record the support of the city council,” he said. Now, Amos and other city officials must figure out how to fund and implement stronger tenant protections, such as the right to a publicly funded lawyer for people facing eviction and requiring landlords to inform tenants of their rights.
The city council in January passed a law that allows the Atlanta Public Defender’s Office to help people fight evictions. Amos said he wants to reinforce that ordinance by adding a requirement that landlords inform people of their right to counsel, so they’re not traversing the legal system blind, especially as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and rising inflation add financial strain.
“We’ve always had the housed and the unhoused,” Amos warned. “Now, we also have the about-to-be-unhoused who need our help.”
“For far too many years, Georgia has been a landlord-friendly state,” said AVLF executive director Michael Lucas in an email, so Atlanta renters urgently need protections that place them on a more equitable footing.
“With skyrocketing rent and high eviction rates, low-income Fulton County residents are more vulnerable than ever,” Lucas said. “Establishing renter protections is long overdue and necessary to prevent the displacement and exploitation of tenants in Atlanta.”
The new city council resolution for a Tenants Bill of Rights proposes two specific protections for tenants facing the threat of eviction. It says landlords should give renters “reasonable notice and an opportunity to cure any lease violation” before they serve an eviction notice. That is “so the stain of an eviction can be avoided in the first place,” the resolution says.
Landlords are more likely to refuse to rent to people with an eviction on their record, so the new city council resolution also proposes prohibiting discrimination against tenants with “previous evictions which may not have been justified.”
Cole Thaler, the co-director of AVLF’s Safe & Stable Homes project, explained how an unjustified eviction could get on someone’s record: Under Georgia law, when a tenant receives an eviction notice, they have seven days to pay any back rent they owe and avoid eviction, Thayer said in an email. But he added that there are problems with this law.
First, to legally avoid eviction, the tenant has to wait until an actual eviction notice is filed to pay the back rent. And second, even if the landlord accepts the back rent payment and dismisses the eviction case, the fact that an eviction was filed against the tenant remains public record, Thayer said.
Thaler said these problems would have been fixed by a bill proposed in the last state legislative session, House Bill 408, but it died in the session.
“Since eviction filings can prevent tenants from securing new housing, any protection that allows tenants to make things right with their landlord before a dispossessory is filed would be a useful tenant protection,” he said.
Amos said he aims to make more equitable renter protections “a campaign issue for everyone running for state office,” now that Georgia’s general election race is underway.
The city councilmember added that he plans to contact state lawmakers about drafting legislation to do this. “I want to make sure the city has checked all the boxes before we approach the state,” Amos said.