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Changes to landlord laws challenged by tenant groups

Three proposed changes to landlord-tenant laws — one of which has already passed — have drawn the support of landlord attorneys and the ire of tenants’ rights groups.

Rep. Steve Urie, R-Gilbert, who sponsored all three measures, says the proposals would cut red tape facing landlords, save renters money and cut down on frivolous appeals in evictions cases. Urie has been a landlord since the mid-‘80s, and said he has been working on crafting the bills with landlord and tenant attorneys since late last year.

Tenant rights’ advocates say they would make tenants vulnerable to abuse from unscrupulous landlords and hurt the appeals process in evictions cases. The measures’ opponents include the William E. Morris Institute for Justice, Arizona Tenants Advocates, and attorneys from Community Legal Services, Inc.

Although the proposals seem highly technical and specific at first glance, they could have far-reaching consequences for thousands of Arizona renters and property managers.

HB2128 expands the legal definition of abandonment and makes it easier for landlords to get rid of personal property in abandoned units. It passed by a wide margin in the House. Its next stop will be consideration by the full Senate.

HB2129, which was signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer on March 27, allows property managers to come in to a unit for requested repairs at any time — a tenant waives the right to advance notice if he asks for repairs.

A third measure, HB2200, would require tenants appealing an eviction decision to post a bond equal to any money judgment levied against them if they wish to stay in the property during the appeal process.

The measure passed in the House early this month, and is up for final approval in the Senate.

Tenants’ rights activists say they’re most concerned about HB2200, which they fear will keep many renters from appealing eviction cases because the process would be too costly. Under current law, renters can stay in a unit during the appeals process if they pay their rent for the current month, plus legal fees.

Ellen Katz, an attorney for the William E. Morris Institute for Justice, says allowing the tenant to stay in the unit during the appeals process is crucial. Moving costs money, and most tenants will not want to go through the hassle of appealing after they’ve already made other living arrangements.

“If a tenant can’t stay in a unit pending an appeal, a lot of tenants won’t appeal. It clearly will be a disincentive,” she told the Arizona Capitol Times.

HB2200 would effectively make it more expensive for a tenant to stay in a unit during the process. The bond required to stay in the unit during the appeals process would be equal to rent accrued or to the civil damages awarded to the landlord in the eviction case.

Most of the time, said senior Community Legal Services attorney Stan Silas, the damages include unpaid rent and a host of late fees and legal fees. The measure would make an appeal too expensive for many tenants.

Urie said the measure is necessary to keep people from appealing frivolously. The appeals process could take between one and six months, and it could prove very costly to a landlord if they don’t receive the money awarded to them in a civil case.

“If somebody were to file an appeal on the 20th of the month, all the defendant would have to do…is put up ten days’ worth of rent, regardless of how much money was owed in prior, unpaid rent,” he said during a March 14 hearing.

There are too many cases, he said, where an appeal doesn’t amount to anything more than a delay game by the tenant.

“His intention may not be to overturn the appeal. His intent may be to stay in the unit longer at the owner’s expense,” Urie said in an interview with the Arizona Capitol Times.

Urie’s other landlord-tenant bills have drawn the ire of tenant activists and community attorneys as well.

The most controversial provision in HB2128 is designed to address a common problem — many tenants moving out of an apartment leave their key in the unit. Arizona law dictates that the owner of the apartment key has possession of the unit.

When a tenant fails to turn the key over to property management, the managers are forced to go to court in order to regain possession, usually through court proceedings. The result, said Urie, is a delay and possible court costs for both sides.

Under current law, a unit is considered “abandoned” after periods of absence and non-payment of rent. HB2128 expands that definition to include cases where a tenant agrees to move out, and has not turned in the key. If a landlord determines there is “reasonable evidence” the tenant has vacated, and there is nothing of “material value” in the unit, he or she can take possession.

“If, for some reason, there are still personal items in there, and the tenant does not look like they’ve moved out, then the landlord simply closes the property and goes through the other processes,” Urie said in the March 14 hearing.

Katz said she is uncomfortable with the phrasing — “material value” — which could be interpreted any way a landlord wants it to be interpreted.

“That’s a very subjective term. A landlord could say, ‘this isn’t anything worthwhile.’ But that could be all their possessions in the world,” she said.

Drawing on his years of experience as a landlord, Urie said the property left behind in most of those cases is worthless. He said he remembered instances where tenants left behind freezers full of raw meat, which, under the current law, would have to be held for 10 days after a landlord claims abandonment.

“If you left it behind, and it’s perishable, we’re not going to keep it,” he said. “If it’s so important, why’d you leave it behind?”

HB2129 allows landlords to circumvent a current rule requiring them to give tenants two days’ notice before entering a unit when a tenant has requested repairs. It was written so that landlords could avoid having to wait another two days if a tenant has re-scheduled an appointment.

“All this is changing, is that they don’t have to give written notice,” Urie said. “That doesn’t mean you can just enter the property without any permission. That’s harassment.”

But Katz said the bill leaves the possibility open. Without written notice requirements, a landlord could theoretically enter without permission. She wondered why the bill wasn’t worded so it only applied to re-scheduled appointments.

“If I ask that my apartment be sprayed for cockroaches,” she said, “I may want to know when that’s happening. I may have a child or an animal and I won’t want them to be there.”

Silas said the bill could actually open landlords up to erroneous or false accusations of theft if they enter without notice.

“They’re going to put themselves in harm’s way in order to make repairs,” Silas said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Urie, who says he has been a landlord since 1985, said the prospect of entering a property without notice is “ludicrous” — entering a unit without permission is potentially dangerous and hurts the landlord’s relationship with a tenant.

“Maybe there’s someone out there who’ll do it, but stupid is not a protected class,” he said. “If it does start happening … I’ll amend the law.”

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