Laramie council passes rental reforms

LARAMIE — Rental horror stories are not hard to come by in the Laramie community as stories of vermin, mold or lack of heat in the wintertime make the rounds. For years, Laramie officials discussed issues surrounding affordable rental units that meet a minimum threshold for human habitation.

“This has been an ongoing conversation since I joined City Council in 2014,” said Ward 1 Councilmember Andi Summerville during this week’s regular council meeting.

She was talking about previous conversations about how to resolve issues of substandard and unsafe rental properties in the city.

After years of discussion and listening to rental horror stories, the City Council has officially passed an ordinance that sets minimum standards for rentals and a complaint resolution program.

The new regulations add three key elements to the city’s municipal code:

• Registration of rental units: City Manager Janine Jordan explained that registering rental units within the city will allow for better outreach, education and support for tenants and landlords. This registration will require an annual fee that Jordan anticipates will be somewhere in the ballpark of $15-$20 a year.

• Minimum habitability standards: This section of the ordinance sets standards for basic equipment and appliances necessary for living. It also sets basic standards for a rental’s structural integrity, ventilation, mold and pests, weatherproofing, electricity and heating, sanitation and fire safety.

• Complaint resolution: The ordinance also establishes a complaint program that requires tenants to first work with landlords before filing a formal complaint. If a tenant is unable to make progress with a landlord, the next step is through the city. This is intended to rectify some of the costly, time-consuming and often ineffective forms of redress offered in civil court.

The implementation of the ordinance will happen in phases over the next year. The city expects to start enforcing the minimum habitability standards and complaint program by 2023. City Manager Jordan said she has received many questions from landlords about the availability of contractors to make any required improvements in a timely manner.

“We understand there could be issues in the labor market,” Jordan said, adding that the city will work with landlords that show they are making a genuine effort to accomplish the changes.

Jordan also clarified that an “owners agent” (referred to in the ordinance) can refer to a property owner that self-manages their property or a management company hired to maintain a property. Owners will not be required to hire a third party agent to manage their property unless they live 60 miles from the city. If an owner lives more than 60 miles from Laramie, they must provide contact information of an “owner’s agent” who lives within the 60-mile radius.

The 60-mile rule is an amendment to the original reading of the ordinance that initially required an owner’s agent to live in Albany County. Councilmember Brian Harrington said that he believed this radius better addresses the issue of response times to tenant requests.

The third reading of the ordinance also added a clarifying definition for “major appliances” for which landlords are responsible to keep in good working order. The major appliances are defined as furnace, water heater, refrigerator, freezer, oven and stove.

Heated debate

As with previous readings of the rental code reforms, the proposed changes stirred significant debate among councilmembers and the public.

Councilmember Erin O’Doherty of Ward 3, who owns rental properties in the city, strongly supports the ordinance.

“Right now, if a tenant has an issue with a landlord, the only redress they have is with a lawsuit,” O’Doherty said, adding that it can be time-consuming, costly and sometimes impossible to serve a landlord with a subpoena. This is especially true if the landlord lives out-of-state.

She explained that landlords are able to deduct many costs associated with owning a rental property, including marketing, repairs and even legal fees. On the other hand, tenants cannot deduct any of the costs associated with renting, including legal fees.

Harrington also was for the ordinance, stating that the housing market in Laramie has been lacking in transparency for years. He added that the proposed rental codes are modest changes by any metric and are very specific to health and safety standards.

Councilmember Bryan Shuster of Ward 3 was less impressed with the new regulations and consistently voted against it. He said some landlords would be forced to sell their rental properties rather than pay for repairs.

Throughout the public comment portion of the debate, opponents and proponents of the ordinance showed up in droves.

Many arguments against the ordinance boiled down to a distaste for bureaucracy, that the ordinance favors tenants over landlords and that Wyoming state law already offers a more landlord-friendly approach to rental complaints.

The issue of private property rights came up several times as a reason to oppose the ordinance, including from Brenda Whitman, a representative of the Laramie Board of Realtors.

Opponents also argued that the ordinance would reduce the number of affordable rentals in town.

“There is a false dichotomy between livability and affordability,” said Josh Watanabe, executive director of Laramie Interfaith, who supports the ordinance. He argued that affordable rentals should not mean people have to be subjected to substandard living situations.

“Affordable housing cannot mean unsafe housing,” said Mike Selmer, another resident.

In his years living in Laramie, he said that he has been appalled and embarrassed by the amount of substandard housing units in the community, noting that his daughter had lived in a deficient rental at one point.

Linda Devine, a local attorney, read a statement of support from the SAFE Project in Laramie, which supports survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and family violence. Clients have often been forced to live in substandard rentals when escaping dangerous home situations. She said some vulnerable people with little resources are forced to live in squalor.

Several other residents also spoke in support of the rules saying the power dynamic between landlords and tenants is unbalanced, which often puts people in vulnerable and unsafe positions.

State Rep. Karlee Provenza said this dynamic in rental situations is one of the reasons to enact the new rules.

Others still showed up to share their rental horror stories, including someone who felt forced to leave Laramie after unsuccessfully searching for a livable rental.

Ultimately, the ordinance passed on a 7-2 vote with Councilmembers Shuster and Pat Gabriel the two dissenting votes.