City Council rejects complaint fees for tenants
Council approved a registration fee for landlords, but nixed a complaint filing fee for tenants, which was proposed to avoid ‘frivolous’ complaints. But those are ‘highly unlikely’ a commenter argued.
Beginning next year, Laramie rental tenants will be able to file complaints with the city regarding substandard or dangerous living conditions. They will be able to file those complaints for free.
The Laramie City Council voted Tuesday to charge landlords a $20 registration fee per unit per year, but elected not to charge tenants a filing fee when and if they choose to bring complaints.
Several councilors and public commenters argued that charging the city’s poorest residents even $15 would constitute a significant barrier and trap powerless individuals in dismal living arrangements.
“Whether they’re seniors, whether they’re struggling families, $15 can very much be the difference between buying diapers and putting gas in the car to go to work,” said Josh Watanabe, executive director of Laramie Interfaith. “This is very much a hardship that we see on a daily basis.”
Part of the initial justification for such a filing fee was the alleged need to deter “frivolous” complaints — dishonest complaints filed to badger or inconvenience one’s landlord.
But Amanda Pittman said during public comment that such a concern was out of touch with reality.
“Frivolous complaints are highly unlikely due to the risk of filing a complaint,” she said. “The risk of enraging a landlord who has control over your life and your habitation and your safety is actually really dangerous. It’s a last resort. It’s something that you want to do if you have no other options. I don’t think people are going to be risking that for no reason.”
‘Preying’ landlords and registration fees
The council approved a City Rental Housing Code earlier this month, following several contentious meetings in which tenants pleaded for help and landlords decried government interference.
The code outlines basic health and safety standards for rentals within the city. When the code takes effect next year, rental units will have to be weatherproofed, structurally sound, and free of pests and mold. Major heating, plumbing and electrical work will have to be completed by licensed professionals.
The code was championed by rental tenants, nonprofit organizations, community organizers and even some landlords who saw the code as reining in the worst of their field. The code was opposed by a local real estate group and various prominent landlords.
On Tuesday, the new standards were once again praised by rental tenants.
“I make $23,500 a year and most of that goes to rent,” Christopher Stratton said. “I appreciate the city taking action against the landlords because we as citizens have been preyed upon by them for the entire time that I have been renting — and pretty much my entire life.”
The matter before council on Tuesday had to do with the Rental Housing Code’s enforcement and related fees. Under the new rental regulations, landlords will have to register each unit they manage with the city. This will give the city information it has never had before — namely, the number of landlords operating in Laramie, and contact information for each.
The Rental Housing Code will be enforced through a complaint system. When tenants believe their unit falls below the new standards — whether it’s a faulty appliance, busted plumbing, a hole in the wall, or the presence of black mold — they can file a complaint with the city. Tenants must first request a remedy from their landlord and allow time for the fix, but once the complaint is filed, the city will investigate. The city manager now has the power to order fixes and even charge fines for persistent noncompliance.
City staff brought a fee proposal to the council Tuesday, recommending a $15 filing fee for tenants lodging complaints, and a $20 registration fee for landlords. City Manager Janine Jordan said the registration fee would be per unit per year, and stressed that the cost to landlords would be negligible.
“You’ll see in the resolution that we are recommending a $20 per year fee,” Jordan said. “That’s roughly $1.66 per month if you were to amortize it over a 12-month period.”
The city manager has previously said she hopes landlords will not pass on the cost of such a “nominal” fee to their tenants. Councilor Erin O’Doherty, meanwhile, pointed to the $50 registration fee the city charges food trucks.
“And I have a choice to go to a food truck and never go there again if I don’t like it,” she said. “Once I’ve signed a lease, I don’t have a lot of choices. So I think a $20 fee is very reasonable.”
The council approved the landlord fee on a predictable 7-2 vote, with Councilors Bryan Shuster and Pat Gabriel opposed. The pair has opposed the Rental Housing Code since it was first introduced.
But the councilors were unanimous in their rejection of the proposed complaint filing fee for tenants.
‘Friction,’ ‘barriers’ and complaint filing fees
Councilor Andi Summerville offered the amendment to strike the complaint fee.
“What I’m interested in doing is making sure those lowest income residents— who are most at risk of living in houses or apartments that are unsafe — that they don’t have barriers to come in and file,” she said.
Councilor Fred Schmechel said it would be “burdensome” for the city’s poorest renters to pay a filing fee twice the minimum wage. Councilor Brian Harrington said imposing a fee would leave renters with the same struggles they face now, where the only avenue for remedy is through the courts.
“When we passed the original Rental Housing Code ordinance, we discussed in pretty extensive detail that the existing framework under state statute was cumbersome and expensive,” Harrington said. “Adding fees and any sort of roadblock to filing sets us up for a very similar outcome as the thing we have worked so hard to address.”
Landlord Brett Glass was the only commenter to speak in favor of charging tenants a $15 filing fee.
“Certainly $15 — which is a very minimal amount — is not a barrier to anyone who has any real trouble,” Glass said. “There needs to be a little bit of friction, I think. There shouldn’t be a lot and it shouldn’t be a hardship, but it certainly should be possible to deter frivolous complaints somehow, because otherwise you are sure to get them.”
But Glass was opposed to the landlord registration fee, which would amount to about $1.67 per month per unit.
“The city would be taking this money away from tenants, to whom this expense would have to be passed on,” he said. “It would — if it’s not challenged and nullified as I believe it would be — raise rents, deter maintenance of rental units, and make housing less available and affordable.”
Councilor Erin O’Doherty said landlord comments of this nature strengthened her support for dropping the complaint filing fee.
“In fact, we have heard from the landlords that they’re going to pass on the registration fee to tenants,” she said. “And so the tenants will be paying the registration fee for the landlords and paying a complaint fee. So I think it’s fair to waive the (complaint) fee.”
‘Loosey-goosey numbers’ and administrative burden
City Manager Janine Jordan said the possibility of frivolous complaints was not the only reason for a filing fee.
“I want to clarify: one of the reasons for a filing fee can be a ‘best practice’ to head off erroneous complaints,” she said. “The other reason for a filing fee in this regard would be to help offset some of the costs of administration.”
Jordan said her staff was estimating they might receive four to six complaints a month, and that those complaints would each require perhaps eight to 12 hours to investigate and otherwise deal with.
“Those are really, frankly, loosey-goosey numbers that we’re looking at right now,” Jordan said. “But I share them with you because it’s important that council understand the fee was proposed not just to head off erroneous complaints, but to help staff keep pace with whatever volume we might see.”
Mayor Paul Weaver admitted that it would take time to understand the scope of the situation in Laramie, but added that the goal is to discourage and avoid violations in the first place.
“I think there’s going to be a period of adjustment and information-gathering,” Weaver said. “My hope continues to be that this is not an ordinance that needs to be utilized on a regular basis to a heavy extent.”
Summerville encouraged city staff to return to the council with any problems, adding that she would be willing to take action if and when “frivolous complaints” were shown to be a problem.
“We don’t know whether we have a frivolous complaint problem yet,” she said. “If we get a month into this program, three months into this program, and the city manager’s office is fielding tons of what they would consider frivolous complaints — or there are other problems that make them want us to reconsider the filing fee — they could bring that forward.”
City staff is planning to revisit the fees in 2024 and in two-year intervals after that. Once a biennium, staff will return to council with fee recommendations.
The landlord registration fees will be implemented by the end of June. Landlords will have until the first day of 2023 to bring their rental units in line with the new standards. At that point, tenants may bring complaints to the city if they believe their landlord or unit violates the Rental Housing Code.