Fair housing legislation unlikely to resurface, bill co-sponsor says

2013-06-05T00:00:00Z 2013-06-05T15:20:08Z Fair housing legislation unlikely to resurface, bill co-sponsor saysBy LEAH TODD Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
June 05, 2013 12:00 am  • 

CASPER, Wyo. — Residents at the Skyler Inn in Casper weren't happy when they were told they had seven days to vacate their rooms at the soon-to-close hotel.

Frustrated, residents turned to state statutes to try to at least slow the process.

They found nothing.

Like most states, Wyoming's landlord and tenant laws do not mention hotels and motels -- commercial enterprises not required to do business under rental agreements as other residential landlords are.

But Wyoming's landlord-tenant legislation would not have been much help for the dozens of Skyler Inn residents, some of whom had called the extended-stay hotel home for years. State statute says 10 days is enough advance notice for a landlord to terminate a tenant's lease agreement and mandate they find a new abode.

And unlike other surrounding states -- with enforcement authorities to put laws into action and statutes that grant more recourse to unfairly treated tenants -- Wyoming has no central housing authority to enforce its own laws.

Years ago, state Rep. Patrick Goggles hoped to change that.

The Democrat from Ethete twice penned his name onto legislation that would have established a housing authority for the state of Wyoming.

Twice, Goggles watched his bill rise and fail.

“We tried it twice, and it just didn’t pan out,” he said. “There really wasn’t enough interest in establishing a Wyoming fair housing statute.”

The bill died first in 2005 and again in 2007. It’s unlikely to reappear anytime soon, he said.

The Wyoming Fair Housing Act would have set up Wyoming’s own enforcement entity to carry out state-made housing laws governing lease terminations, sanitation conditions, discriminatory rental practices and the like. Currently, Goggles said, renters can file complaints with a federal fair housing office in Denver. A federal housing official then travels to the Wyoming location to investigate -- and potentially prosecute -- the complaint.

A state-level authority would have allowed Wyoming to prosecute fair housing violations on its home turf using Wyoming-based authorities, rather than require federal officials travel from out of state to address concerns voiced by Wyoming residents.

Goggles said the estimated cost of establishing a new state agency -- likely to be managed under the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office -- was high, discouraging would-be supporters from backing the bill.

With its small population, he said, Wyoming’s instances of housing discrimination are fewer and farther between than in a larger housing market. Still, Goggles said, cases of discrimination are equally as difficult to prove.

The Wyoming Fair Housing Act proposed a simple place to start -- with a definition. The bill defined discriminatory housing practices as unlawfully denying a dwelling on the basis of religion, color or race, and put explanations behind terms like “discrimination," "complainant” and “conciliation agreement" -- words not currently included in Wyoming's residential rental property statutes.

Six years have passed since the legislation was last proposed. Today, Goggles is the only co-sponsor still standing in the Legislature. Beyond lack of interest, Goggles said he doubts any legislation that adds new costs to an already constrained state budget would fare well in the upcoming budget session.

He thinks the legislation establishing a Wyoming-based housing authority would stand less of a chance today than it did back then.

“Adding new dollars rather than cutting just isn’t conducive to this fiscally conservative environment,” he said. “All these laws can be improved if we can find a way to improve them without adding dollars to our budget.”

An in-depth analysis into the state’s landlord tenant law -- last updated in 1999 -- would be ideal before launching any new fair housing legislation, Goggles said.

But such an analysis, he said, is “not even on my radar.”

Landlord law in the West

Skyler Inn guests found no recourse in Wyoming's landlord-tenant law when a notice telling them to leave within a week was posted on their doors.

Holding written proof of residency and a driver's license printed with the hotel's Casper address, Sue Johnson, a guest who had been paying to live at the Skyler Inn for six months, asked anyone who would listen: "Aren't we residents?"

One of Wyoming's far western neighbors has a law on the books to address just that question.

California's civil code specifically addresses the legal needs of people who post up for long stays at hotels and motels. A person paying to live in a California hotel for 30 days or less is a guest, according to section 1940 of the state's civil code. A person paying to live in a California hotel for more than 30 days, though, is a tenant, fully vested with every protection provided under the state's landlord-tenant law.

Nothing as extensive exists in Wyoming.

Unless otherwise specified in a lease agreement, landlords in Wyoming can choose to terminate a rental agreement instead of remedying a complaint, so long as they give the tenant between 10 and 20 days' notice to find substitute housing. State statute tells landlords to address a tenant's complaint "within a reasonable time," but sets no time frame for action and no recourse for the tenant in the meantime.

State statutes in Nebraska and Montana require 30 days' notice before a month-to-month lease is terminated. Landlords in Nebraska and Montana must address a renter's complaint within 14 days of receiving notice. In Nebraska, statutes allow tenants the option to terminate the lease if 30 days pass with no action from the landlord. If a complaint in Montana results in an emergency, state statutes there say the 14-day time frame wherein a landlord must act shortens to three days.

South Dakota's state statutes allow a tenant the right to both withhold rent payments if a landlord neglects to remedy a complaint, and the right to make repairs himself or herself and deduct the cost from a rent payment. Wyoming's statutes do not provide either course of action for aggrieved tenants.

Johnson said hospitality businesses that take on extended stay guests, as the Skyler Inn did, should be held accountable to the same laws as any other residential landlord -- especially when the hotel is listed as a guest's primary residence.

"You're paying rent," she said of the extended-stay hotel business model. The Skyler Inn stopped charging sales tax on her monthly rental payments after she had lived there 30 days, she said.

With help from the Casper Housing Authority and Community Action Partnership, Johnson said, she and her family have since been relocated into a Casper home.

She said she's not looking to move anytime soon, and plans to never live in a hotel again.

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