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Landlords divided on rental regulations
City Council advanced an ordinance calling for health and safety standards and establishing a complaint system. The ordinance was met with some landlord opposition, but also a wave of support.
The Laramie City Council has brought rental regulations one step closer to fruition, passing the City Rental Housing Code on first reading Tuesday.
But it’s controversial. The council’s virtual meeting this week drew comments from landlords frustrated by the regulations and the financial burden the ordinance might place on them. But the council also heard from tenants angry about or disappointed by dismal or dangerous living conditions. Several in both camps speculated about what the regulations would mean for the future of Laramie.
Significantly, there were landlords such as Austin Lipson who spoke in favor of establishing rental regulations.
“As a former renter in Laramie who lived in one place that snow would blow into through cracks in the wall, and another place that had plants growing up through the floors during the summer, I firmly support passing rental code and can say with confidence that this town needs it,” Lipson said.
While there were other property owners who spoke in favor of the regulations, many landlords remain opposed to the measures within the ordinance. In 2019, this faction shut down the possibility of rental regulations, showing out in force to voice their disapproval, ultimately contributing to that earlier ordinance’s tight 4-5 defeat.
Landlord Steve Grabowski objected to the new ordinance — specifically a provision requiring landlords to hire licensed professionals to perform electrical work in rental units.
“If you want to ease the housing shortage and lower costs, how about making it easier for me to rent my apartment out, not harder?” he said. “The expenses needed to meet restrictions and the destructiveness of many students have kept me from opening my apartment for 3 or 4 people for numerous years, contributing to the housing shortage.”
But tenant voices — largely absent from the 2019 meeting — were well represented Tuesday. Rental tenants make up 50 percent or more of Laramie’s population and many have been subject to horrific living conditions and terrifying landlords.
Sam Neumann, a renter, said the current state of affairs is discouraging.
“When we have slumlords in our community that provide unsafe housing, it drives people out of our community,” he said.
The council’s discussion on rental regulations came near the end of its meeting, and public comment was cut short when the council chose to take a vote just before 10 p.m.
The ordinance passed its first reading on a 7-1 vote, with only Councilor Pat Gabriel voting against it. Councilor Bryan Shuster had left the meeting early and was absent for the vote, but had voiced his own disapproval before going. The ordinance must pass two more readings before it can be added to the municipal code.
Landlord income, tenant shelter
Austin Lipson, the landlord who spoke about his own previous experience as a Laramie renter, asked the city council to weigh the pros and cons of the ordinance. On the one hand, Lipson said, it could cost landlords a bit of money — through the registration fee, mandated repairs or even fines if the city manager’s office aggressively enforces the regulations.
“However, all of the above mentioned expenses are ones that we as landlords can afford if we’re being realistic about our economic position in this landlord-tenant relationship,” Lipson said.
On the other hand, he added that tenants typically do not have the resources to seek remedies in court or otherwise hold bad landlords accountable.
“This rental housing code doesn’t call for marble countertops or recess lighting. It doesn’t even require that rental units be ‘nice.’ It just requires that they be safe,” Lipson said. “If there are landlords out there worried that they will lose substantial sums of money as a result of this housing code, I would ask: Are their rental units so lacking in safety that bringing them up to par will really cost them that much money?”
But several landlords did say the ordinance would be a burden on them, and several warned they would raise rents in response to the new registration fees and requirements.
“Don’t force us to raise our rents further to cover the cost of a new tax on rentals,” said Brett Glass. “And don’t cause us to consider selling to less responsible landlords because the bureaucracy is too much.”
Derek Colling also spoke against the rental regulations. As a then-deputy for the Albany County Sheriff’s Office, Colling shot and killed an unarmed man in 2018 — an incident that inspired local movements for greater police accountability and oversight. Colling was never charged, but he resigned from the sheriff’s office earlier this year, following resignations by the county attorney who decided not to bring charges and the sheriff who defended him before and after the shooting.
Colling is also a landlord and real estate broker, who made an appearance at the 2019 rental regulations meeting, urging the city council to “kill this thing.”
On Tuesday, he told the council that the new rental regulations ordinance would scare off “investors” and those looking to get into Laramie real estate.
“People that are interested in coming to this community in the first place are not interested in regulations,” Colling said. “They want to escape these places that have regulations and they want to come to a place where they can have their freedom and live the American lifestyle that they want to.”
He added the real estate community should be consulted on any regulations under consideration.
“We are the people in the trenches,” Colling said. “We are the people doing the work. We are the people who know the complaints that come in. We know the conditions of these properties and we understand what it takes to maintain these places and deal with tenants.”
But those living in Laramie’s rental units typically had a very different perspective.
Zelena Leon moved to Laramie this fall to take a job at the University of Wyoming.
“Initially it was very hard to find a place at all,” she said. “I would make the drive to come and look at all the places I was interested in. There were necessities missing. There were several places where walls were missing. I’ve never really had an experience this bad, to the point where it made me rethink the position here.”
Leon said she eventually found a place, but there are still issues with her current rental. Having lived in Laramie just two months, Leon is already wondering if she wants to stay.
“Everytime I ask for suggestions from long-term people who have lived here in Laramie, I don’t get great feedback,” she said. “I get scared. I don’t know where I’m going to go to next. I was actually hoping to start a family here in the near future, and now that seems scary to me because I don’t want to have to bathe my child in the seven minutes before the water runs out.”
What’s in the regulations?
The proposed ordinance, the City Rental Housing Code, institutes standards for rental properties, establishes a complaint system, and lays out an enforcement system that will require Laramie landlords to register their rental units.
But members of the public and city councilors questioned specific details.
Councilor Gabriel, who would ultimately vote against the rental regulations, asked if the ordinance would conflict with state statutes — echoing a concern raised by some members of the public.
City Attorney Bob Southard said the relevant state statute and the city’s ordinance address different issues. The state statute, and the court system through which it is adjudicated, handle only the contractual issues, determining whether the landlord or tenant is holding up their end of the agreement.
“If you’re in a fight with your tenant about their non-payment of rent — or you’re in a fight with your landlord about the heat or the hot water — the only remedy is to proceed through circuit court,” Southard said. “Nothing in that statutory scheme in circuit court is directed at getting anything resolved, like fixing the heat. That’s not what that statutory court system is for. And this ordinance is directed at something else, which is: ‘Let’s get the problem fixed.”
Moreover, some councilors argued, the court system is technically available as a recourse to anyone but often is not a realistic option for the poorest residents.
“It’s been documented that individuals are having difficulty, when they wish to take a matter to court, in having the summons to court delivered to the landlord,” Councilor Sharon Cumbie said. “And it seems to be rather a difficult process. Each time they have to file to try to go to court, it’s $50, and if the summons cannot be delivered then it just goes on forever.”
Again citing the economic realities for Laramie’s poorest renters, some councilors voiced concerns about the complaint filing fee — the money a rental tenant must pay to lodge a complaint against their landlord.
City Manager Janine Jordan said the fee, which would be determined by her office after passage of the ordinance, was meant to deter “frivolous” complaints. But Councilor Brian Harrington asked that the fee be “as small as possible” and Councilor Andi Summerville went a step further.
“My personal preference would be no complaint filing fee, just because I’m concerned about the most vulnerable in our community and their financial resources,” she said. “I don’t want that to be a barrier between them and safe housing.”
Laramie landlord engineering
Among its various standards for rental units, the ordinance states that certain kinds of work must be performed by licensed professionals — a proposal Laramie landlords have fought in the past.
“Laramie landlord engineering” is a joke term used by some in Laramie’s rental community to describe unorthodox solutions to home maintenance issues. While the term is sometimes lovingly used to describe a wacky workaround, it can also refer to any number of less humorous, unprofessional fixes (for example: using a blow dryer to stop the leakage of fecal matter into an apartment from the unit above, a plan that did not work.)
“In the rental code, we asked to have the licensed contractor listed under plumbing, electrical and basically mechanical work,” Assistant City Manager Todd Feezer said. “There’s just quite a few items in there that I don’t believe the average homeowner is qualified to do and make sure it’s done correctly for the safety of somebody that’s actually buying that space from them.”
Some landlords are concerned that this might require the hiring of an electrician or plumber for basic, everyday fixes. But Feezer said the city goes by the International Residential Code, which delineates the types of projects one must seek a permit for, and the types of projects that are exempt. If it doesn’t require a permit under the International Residential Code, it won’t require a licensed professional under the ordinance, city staff said.
“Typically if we’re in a like-for-like replacement — if you’re replacing a faucet or you’re changing a wax ring on a toilet or you’re changing out a light switch — I don’t believe that those are hard-permitted items,” Freezer said. “It’s when you get into a problem where you’ve got an electrical issue that takes more than that — where you’re pulling wire and doing things that are well beyond just average maintenance.”
City Manager Janine Jordan led a presentation on the ordinance, and said it draws on the International Property Management Code and is modeled after Eugene, Oregon’s own rental regulations.
“(The Rental Housing Code) establishes minimum specific maintenance standards for some sort of basic things that you would think are needed for any rental or any dwelling unit to be considered habitable and safe,” she said.