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In a city of renters, proposed rules seek to rein in landlords

A woman and her roommate are outside their dilapidated house in the winter, with their belongings on the ground.
Jeff Victor
Wyoming Public Radio
Meg Foley and her roommate take a break from moving out during their eviction from a Laramie rental in March 2020.

It's the early days of March 2020. In about two weeks, the pandemic will shut down Wyoming and radically alter life for its residents. Meg Foley is being evicted from her Laramie rental.

The little house that Foley and her three roommates are vacating is not in great shape. It's freezing inside the house, and little pockets of mold have been painted over. Pests are a constant problem.

"I actually found mouse droppings in my bed and that was kind of a breaking point for me," she said.

The roommates had requested that these and other issues be addressed by their landlord. But Foley said making those requests just upset him.

"We had quite a bit of back and forth since they weren't fixing any of our problems," she said.

The relationship deteriorated and, in February, the landlord refused to take their rent. The sheriff's office served an eviction notice a few days later.

Foley's situation is far from unique. She said both her exterminator and the deputies serving the eviction were well acquainted with her landlord. Other tenants renting from different Laramie landlords have described similarly unsafe living conditions, everything from faulty appliances to leaking sewage.

"I think everybody in town has a story," said City Councilor Andi Summerville. "A story about a rental that they lived in where maybe there was no heat in it, or maybe it was a basement apartment with only one door, or the water heater leaked constantly, there was mold growing in the walls. That type of stuff. Everybody has a story."

So now, nearly two years after Foley's eviction, the Laramie City Council is taking aim at the issue.

A newly proposed ordinancewould establish a City Rental Housing Code, detailing basic health and safety requirements for rental units in the city.

Apartments and houses-for-rent would have to be structurally sound and weatherproofed. They would have to be free of pests and mold, while plumbing, heating or electrical work would have to be performed by licensed professionals.

"We're not saying the house has to be like the Ritz, but we're asking that it be safe," Summerville said. "This ordinance is really streamlined to health and safety. We just want these apartments, or these houses, to be safe. That's all we're asking."

The last time city councilors raised the possibility of rental regulations, landlords showed out in force to oppose it and it was voted down. But when the council introduced its new ordinance last week, there were many landlords who actually spoke in favor of it.

"We're not saying the house has to be like the Ritz, but we're asking that it be safe. This ordinance is really streamlined to health and safety. We just want these apartments, or these houses, to be safe. That's all we're asking."
City Councilor Andi Summerville

Summerville chalks that up to the regulations being limited.

"They thought this was okay, this wasn't overly burdensome, they could deal with this," Summerville said. "This rental ordinance is not as robust as it could be. There are cities with rental ordinances that require annual inspections of all rentals across the city."

But not everyone's on board.

"The city of Laramie has limited resources and limited authority and it needs to stick to its knitting," said Brett Glass, one of the landlords who voiced strong opposition during the council's meeting last week. "It's doing something that will actually raise rents, make rental properties less available and do nothing to stop the problems."

Glass said many landlords won't want to deal with the new requirements or new charges, and either leave the business or raise rents.

He took particular issue with the requirement that some maintenance work would have to be done by licensed professionals. Glass said he frequently takes care of small fixes himself that would take days to complete if he had to wait on a contractor.

"What this does is it ensures that you're not going to be able to get something done promptly because the few licensed contractors in town are overloaded," Glass said. "And they'll often send an apprentice that won't do the quality of work that you're going to do."

City staff has said that minor fixes, like swapping out parts, will not require a licensed professional. But Glass doesn't believe them.

Enforcement will work through a complaint process. If a rental unit doesn't meet the new standards, a tenant can file a complaint with the city manager, who can then inspect the unit and fine the landlord if they don't bring it into compliance.

Glass likes a proposed idea that would require a fee of someone who files a complaint.

"Because you do get problem tenants," he said. "Tenants do try to abuse landlords. So there should be a little friction. I'm not saying there should be a lot, but there should be a little."

Councilor Summerville said she has concerns about a fee because she doesn't want someone's poverty to stand between them and safe housing.

"I certainly know people that have very limited financial resources, and I have seen places in town where they're very much taken advantage of," Summerville said. "They're living in houses that people really shouldn't be living in but, because of their financial resources, they have no other choices."

Many of Laramie's renters are poor and others are young students, renting their very first place.

Meg Foley is keenly aware of that power imbalance. She and her roommates started fighting their eviction in court but eventually gave up because their landlord had a lawyer and the women simply couldn't risk paying his legal fees if they lost.

"He was purposely doing things out of our price range because he knew we were three young college girls without any money," she said.

The regulations wouldn't solve that particular issue or a host of other problems described by some of Laramie's most disadvantaged renters. But Foley does think it's high time Laramie addressed the issue.

"These (regulations) seem so basic that I'm surprised these aren't already in place," Foley said.

The ordinance has passed its first reading and must pass two more before it becomes part of city code.

Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and trends.
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