Thursday, April 07, 2005

Democracy inaction

Most states adopted a landlord-tenant law decades ago to ensure that rental housing meets a minimal level of habitability. Alabama is one of only two states without such a law, and from the looks of things in Montgomery, that's unlikely to change this year.

Legislators who support rental companies and lawmakers who sympathize more with renters have yet again hit a stalemate over competing versions of the law. Not surprisingly, the most notable disagreement is over whether tenants should ever be allowed to withhold rent. Landlords want a blanket ban on withholding rent, while renters' advocates call for allowing renters to withhold up to a half month's rent if landlords don't fix problems after notice.

The rental companies are correct that renters shouldn't be able to hold landlords over a barrel with repeated complaints about the sorts of minor imperfections inherent in any residence. But an absolute bar on withholding rent would practically eviscerate enforcement of a landlord-tenant law.

If the law barred tenants from ever withholding rent, no matter how deplorable the living conditions, I don't see what, other than market pressure or aggressive government enforcement of health and safety regulations, could motivate landlords to keep their rental property in habitable condition. That problem would be worse in smaller towns and rural areas with few rental options.

Compromise would be the logical solution, but don't get your hopes up. After all, we're talking about Alabama legislators and the cash-rich lobbyists who own strongly influence them.

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