Two candidates running for city-wide positions in the upcoming election are looking to bring changes to the city's rental housing policies.
Damon Krane, an independent candidate running for Athens mayor, and Ellie Hamrick, a Socialist running for an At-Large seat on Athens City Council, are acting upon the issues of stricter enforcement of city code, providing rent control and increasing code office staffing the centerpiece to their campaigns to combat what they view as dishonest practices of Athens landlords. They call their plan, “Operation Slumlord Smackdown.”
What is ”Operation Slumlord Smackdown”?
Krane originally began constructing this plan when he was considering running for Athens mayor in 2017. Hamrick got involved shortly after they both announced their campaigns.
“We travel in some of the same left-activist circles, so we found each other pretty quickly,” Krane said.
The first part of the plan that Krane and Hamrick are seeking to address is hiring more staff at the city code office.
“It's the only way to make sure they have a workload that’s reasonable that gives each inspector sufficient time for an inspection to identify all the violations that could be present,” Krane said. “Right now, they're just overburdened, and each inspection is way too short.”
David Riggs was recently chosen as the new director of the Athens Code Enforcement office, which is also staffed by four code enforcement officers, two solid waste inspectors, a general secretary and an administrative assistant.
Riggs, who started his new job about two weeks ago, said the ideas in the proposal make sense and should definitely be considered, but he needs to familiarize himself more with city code and the office’s budget restrictions before he can talk about it more.
“I definitely want to look and see how our staff is managing their time,” Riggs said. “I think I’ll get a handle on that in the next few weeks, but I’m just not there yet.”
Both candidates said that in many cases, the lack of staffing makes the office a reactionary entity rather than one that proactively inspects and seeks out violations. This ends up leaving it up to residents to enforce city code by filing complaints, Hamrick said.
“To put the burden on them to enforce the city housing code is plainly ridiculous. You feel intimidated standing up to your landlord, too, because this is somebody who has so much power over you,” Hamrick said.
Strengthening city code and rent control
Krane and Hamrick are also looking to strengthen city code and have it more strictly enforced. The first step to doing this is up to Lisa Eliason, the city law director, both candidates said.
Krane said that Eliason does not properly enforce city code because if a property has multiple code violations, it is only counted as one total offense for the whole property.
“How do you increase penalties for multiple offenses if the law director determines that multiple offenses never occur?” Krane said. “If a law director is not going to enforce the code, nothing else matters.”
But Eliason does not believe that Krane and Hamrick understand the process, she said in an email.
“The Office of the Law Director and City Prosecutor prosecutes the case if the owner pleads not guilty,” Eliason said. “The ultimate goal is to have the owner bring the property into compliance with the housing code,” Eliason said in an email. She also explained that according to city code, a code violation can lead to an owner being charged with a minor misdemeanor punishable up to a $100 fine.
Besides criticizing Eliason, Krane said more violations should be added to city code, including landlords wrongly withholding security deposits, landlords or their maintenance staff entering homes without advance notice and failure to properly weatherize properties.
Another part of their plan is to institute rent control so that when properties are being repaired, rent doesn’t increase for the tenants currently living in the property.
“If we’re going to bring these properties into compliance, it's going to cost a lot of money, and it shouldn't cost current tenants a lot of money,” Krane said. “Landlords should be the ones to foot the bill.”
That part of the proposal was not part of Krane’s original plan. Hamrick said she introduced it when she began working with Krane.
“Residents should not have to be paying an arm and a leg for terrible housing conditions. Safe and livable housing is a human right,” Hamrick said.
How is the city responding?
Patterson said that Krane and Hamrick are politicizing an issue that he doesn’t see as a huge problem in Athens. He said his administration and the Athens City Council hear more about e-scooters and potholes than tenant complaints.
Patterson also said that most landlords are not bad actors and generally comply with city code, fixing most existing violations before getting charged.
Hamrick accuses Patterson of taking a large amount of campaign donations from John Wharton, the owner of Wharton Rentals: Student Off-Campus Housing, who she said is one of the worst offenders along with Prokos Rentals.
“Patterson goes out of his way to say ‘not all landlords,’” Hamrick said. “He’s bending over backward to show he is not anti-landlord.”
Patterson said his campaign receives donations from multiple sources, including many renters around the city. He also said the donations he received from Wharton are because the landlord supports Patterson’s efforts to beautify part of Uptown Athens.
Both Krane and Hamrick said they expect to continue their activism in the city even if they lose during election day in November.
“Even if Damon and I are elected, and we are able to make large portions of Operation Slumlord Smackdown into policy, that is not going to be enough because they can just get rid of it later,” Hamrick said. “Real and lasting change comes from organized tenants ourselves.”