Senate panel votes to handcuff cities on tenant protections


A Senate panel voted Monday to slam the door on future efforts by cities, towns and counties to enact their own regulations to protect tenants.

HB 2115 would leave untouched any ordinance that already was in place at the beginning of the year. But the measure, approved by the Senate Government Committee on a 4-3 party-line vote, says anything new would be strictly off limits.

The measure, which already has passed the House, now goes to the full Senate.

Moments later, the same committee approved, on the same party-line vote, HB 2358 which spells out that landlords are free to immediately evict tenants even after they have accepted partial payment of rent from a government program or even a church or housing assistance agency.

That came despite concerns from Zaida Dedolph of Wildfire, formerly the Arizona Community Action Association, that such a radical change from existing law will only exacerbate the state’s housing situation. She pointed out the move comes on the heels of a new report which shows Arizona is the third worst in the nation in having a supply of affordable housing.

The vote on HB 2115 preempting local regulations came over objections from representatives from various communities who urged lawmakers to butt out.

“The fact that different cities have different regulations is a good thing,” said Alex Vidal who lobbies on behalf of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns.

For example, he said in places like Yuma and Phoenix it might be appropriate to have some requirement about air conditioning or other cooling and even a requirement that an apartment be kept below a certain temperature.

“But in places like Flagstaff or Sedona or up north, the snow removal or heating might be a bigger concern,” Vidal said.

The measure is being pushed by the Arizona Multihousing Association which represents landlords throughout the state.

Lobbyist Jake Hinman told lawmakers that the Arizona Landlord-Tenant Act, first adopted in 1972, is sufficient to set out the rules governing the obligations of those who own homes and apartments and those who rent them. And he said the fact that most of the state’s 91 cites have so far chosen not to adopt their own codes proves that is true.

In fact, Hinman’s group originally sought to force repeal of existing local ordinances but was forced to back down when the House refused to go along. So he has agreed to settle to allow what is in place to remain.

New regulations or changes to existing ones, however, would be strictly forbidden.

But Ken Volk, who has worked with tenants for more than 24 years and helped push for the comprehensive housing code that exists in Tempe, said the Landlord-Tenant Act is really insufficient to protect those who rent.

“State law is vague,” he said, with words like “reasonable” and “appropriate” for what landlords are expected to provide in things like climate, water temperature and water pressure; another section of what’s forbidden uses words like “unsanitary” and “faulty.”

“None of those set standards,” Volk said, standards he said are necessary for not only renters but also neighbors and the general community.

He said the experience of what state lawmakers think is appropriate convinces him that local governments need to retain their ability to enact something more.

For example, Volk noted the Legislature approved a measure several years ago dealing with what happens in cases of bedbug infestations. On paper, he said, landlords are not supposed to rent out a unit they know has problems.

“Landlords will not admit that there was a prior bedbug problem,” Volk said. “What they do is they try to blame the current tenant and get the tenant to be held financially liable.”

Hinman, however, said preemption helps remove confusion for both landlords and tenants to have multiple regulations in different communities.

HB 2358 deals with the separate issue of what happens when landlords have accepted payments made on a tenant’s behalf.

Hinman said the legislation is necessary to protect landlords following a court ruling that precluded them from evicting a tenant for other violations. The court said once the landlord has accepted at least partial payment of rent – in this case, Section 8 rental assistance for low-income residents – he or she cannot then turn around and oust them.

“We have to have that remedy,” Hinman said.

But Pamela Bridge, director of advocacy for Community Legal Services, said the language is overly broad.

She said organizations that provide housing assistance, including churches, send checks to landlords under the presumption they’re helping to keep someone in an apartment. This bill, she said, allows the landlord to take the money and still turn the person out on the street that same month.

But Christopher Walker, an attorney who is involved in landlord-tenant issues, told lawmakers the legislation actually will help low-income tenants in the long run.

He warned that if landlords can’t enforce other rules because they’ve taken a check they will simply decide to no longer participate in the Section 8 program.

“That doesn’t help the vulnerable population,” Walker said.

“Landlords are concerned they don’t have the ability to manage and oversee their properties,” he said. “They don’t have the ability to remove someone that’s a risk.”

This House-passed measure also now goes to the full Senate.