Bill would erode tenants’ rights in Alabama

Renting an apartment or a house can involve a lot of challenges, ranging from security deposits and fees to potentially cantankerous neighbors or landlords. But life for Alabama renters could get a lot more difficult if the Legislature passes SB 291, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston.

The bill is the second major attack on renter protections in Alabama in recent years, ACPP executive director Kimble Forrister said. The Legislature in 2011 passed provisions weakening renter protections in the landlord-tenant act.

“The 2006 landlord-tenant law clearly laid out a balanced set of protections for both sides of the rental relationship,” Forrister said. “Now, as if renters didn’t have a hard enough time, another bill would tilt the scales in favor of those who own rental properties and undermine important safeguards for renters.”

One of the most onerous parts of the bill for tenants could be the provision limiting their right to correct a problem cited by the landlord as a lease violation. In legal terms, this right is known as the right to “cure” the breach of the lease contract. For example, if a lease forbids a tenant from having a pet, the tenant could give the pet away and return to compliance with the lease terms. Under SB 291, a tenant would have no right to correct a problem unless the landlord gives express written consent.

The proposal also would shorten a set of deadlines governing the rental relationship. For example, current state law requires landlords to provide tenants with a 14-day written notice to terminate a lease for violations that do not involve failure to pay rent. SB 291 would shorten that notice period to seven days. If the tenant fails to pay rent, the law now requires landlords to give seven days’ notice before termination. SB 291 would reduce that time to a mere four days.

Another “zero tolerance” component of the plan is a provision that says any termination of electrical service to the property equals abandonment of the premises. If a tenant misses a payment to the power company and has service cut off even once, the bill would allow a landlord to declare the property officially abandoned, change the locks and put the renters’ possessions out on the street.

The bill adjusts other deadlines in favor of the landlord, too. For example, landlords now have 35 days to return security deposits to departing renters or provide notice of why they are keeping all or part of the deposit. SB 291 would allow landlords to hold onto a renter’s deposit for up to 60 days before returning it.

A coalition of organizations including ACPP and the Low Income Housing Coalition of Alabama is mobilizing to draw public attention to SB 291’s effects on low-income renters. But with powerful supporters backing the bill, advocates may have a tough fight on their hands.

By Stephen Stetson, policy analyst. Posted Feb. 4, 2014.