Wyoming doesn’t ask much of its landlords, but in Teton County some property owners are using the power of a landlord’s market to avoid even the state’s minimal responsibilities.
Lawyers and renters at ground zero of Teton County’s housing struggles this summer say the high demand and low supply has led some landlords to avoid laws altogether, while others use the laws to demand more and more of tenants.
“I’d say it’s probably the second-most-common issue we see here,” said Lauren Browne, executive director of the Teton County Access to Justice Center. “We’ve seen even more in the last few weeks. It seems like there are landlords, for some reason, who think they have carte blanche to do what they please, even violate a lease.”
The Access to Justice Center provides free legal assistance to those who meet low-income requirements and resources for others to help themselves.
Browne and her housing lawyer Alex Freeberg meet with tenants across the valley who are trying to keep landlords within the bounds of the law. Wyoming’s laws put a great deal of power in a landlord’s hands, and the current housing shortage has led many to use that power to raise rents, refuse repairs and keep deposits, whether or not they are technically allowed to do so, she said.
Tami Cook has experienced all of those things. In June 2013, Cook rented a property in Hoback Junction. Her landlord told her the property’s septic tank had some problems, but he would fix the tank before it became worse, she said.
By winter the septic tank’s leach field overflowed and sewage water spread to the neighborhood’s road. Residents complained to Teton County. The complaints resulted in an eviction notice.
Cook’s landlord responded with what Cook called a “quick fix.”
“The leach field was dug out, and he put a red fence around it,” Cook said. “It kept filling up, and I was told to keep an eye on it to be sure it did not drain down the road. The septic tank’s smell permeated outside the front of the house.”
By the time Cook’s lease ended, things turned sour. The septic tank problem had turned into a full-blown altercation between Cook and her landlord that eventually left Cook, her daughter and her son-in-law without a home. Her landlord broke the terms of the lease and the law, she said.
Wyoming’s law spells out few specific responsibilities for someone hoping to rent out a property.
A landlord “shall maintain that unit in a safe and sanitary condition fit for human habitation” which specifically includes maintaining electrical systems, plumbing, heating and hot and cold water, according to Wyoming’s Landlord-Tenant Act. However, the law specifies that any of these responsibilities are void if the written, signed lease to rent the property gives that responsibility to someone else.
Landlords also are allowed to simply terminate a rental agreement if a repair requested by a tenant “exceeds an amount which would be reasonable in light of the rent charged, the nature of the rental property or rental agreement,” provided he gives 30 days’ notice to the tenant.
As with nearly every law in Wyoming, if there is a written contract governing a situation or relationship, the contract is king. The law itself states that its own provisions take second place to whatever the two parties put into a lease.
“Any duty or obligation in this article may be assigned to a different party or modified by explicit written agreement signed by the parties,” the act states.
In essence, a Wyoming landlord may do as much or as little as he pleases, as long as he’s specified what that is in a lease and persuades a tenant to sign it.
Jackson’s lack of housing expands the leeway afforded to landlords. Veronica Mulhall, volunteer coordinator for Habitat for Humanity, said the housing shortage makes it easy for landlords to ignore problems that otherwise would be addressed.
“Habitat sees plumbing issues such as leaking,” Mulhall said. “We also see a lot of lead paint, which isn’t common in other areas. When you rent houses in other places, it’s a requirement that you update things such as lead paint.”
Mold is another maintenance issue found in Jackson houses. Michael Dart, Teton County supervisor of environmental health, conducts mold inspections. He tries his best to offer renters advice but doesn’t have authority to monitor negotiations between landlord and tenant.
“I wish I could do more to help people, because we do have problems here,” Dart said. “I try to advise people with what they can do to help themselves. I tell them to pull out the carpet, and use bleach and soapy water to remove mold spores.”
The house Sharon Fralin rents has a mold infestation. Her landlords haven’t taken care of it.
“It’s starting to get mold in the drywall,” Fralin said. “It’s getting worse. They just want the rent. They don’t seem to care about the house.”
Mold is a costly project that requires new carpet and paint. Fralin said cost is why her landlords haven’t cleaned the mold.
“The guys that own our house are super nice and have worked with us a lot,” Fralin said. “They let us split up rent. But anything that isn’t small to fix, they let it go. I understand that everyone has budget issues, but our landlords don’t have to live in the conditions and choose to ignore them.”
Other landlords in Teton County are not even abiding by their responsibilities under their leases.
Browne has seen tenants whose landlords attempt to raise rents even while a lease still is in effect. Others complain of landlords harassing their tenants in an attempt to goad them into leaving or complaining, she said.
“What you’re seeing is a landlord will rent out a property, then realize he can get a lot more money for it and try to either convince the tenant to pay more money or evict them and get someone in who will pay more,” Browne said. “I think some of it is that landlords aren’t always educated on the laws. I think some of it is that neither are tenants, and the cost of a legal action often isn’t worth it for them.”
As long as a written and signed lease is in effect agreeing to a specific rental rate, that rate can only be changed if the lease says the landlord may do so. Many landlords in Jackson rent on a month-by-month basis for that reason — a monthly lease allows the landlord to change terms at the beginning of a new rental period. However, Browne said some of the center’s clients had another six months to go on their leases when landlords tried to double or even triple the rent.
The only real recourse in that situation is Teton County’s small claims court. In small claims any Teton County resident may sue another Teton County resident for an amount up to $6,000.
A lawyer is not required to bring an action to small claims, but Browne said some of the trouble is that landlords often bring one anyway, and their tenants can’t afford to do the same. “It’s not always easy, but I think one reason people do get away with these things is it takes money and time to fight it in court,” Browne said. “But unless we start to hold landlords accountable for their actions, it’s only going to get worse.”
Cook has decided to take action and has sought legal advice. She said her landlord broke the law when he decided to finally fix the septic tank. In order to fix the problem he had to turn off the water. He gave Cook one week to pack up and refused to find a place for her to stay, she said.
“He should have bent over backwards to accommodate,” Cook said. “Instead he said, ‘Put the dogs in a kennel and go stay in your daughter’s apartment.’”
Cook’s dispute with her landlord is in full swing. The landlord and his wife claim Cook owes them money.
His wife “came into my store to confront me in front of customers,” Cook said. “I was told to be out of the house for 11 days. The water was turned on six days after I left. I was out of the house the entire 11 days, but she said I owe money for the time the water was on.”
Rental property disputes go both ways. Renters can mistreat the landlord’s property and can break lease rules.
At least five landlords this year have brought small claims suits to bring “outlaw tenants” to justice, suing for unpaid rent and unpaid cleaning fees. In all of the cases either the tenant did not show up, meaning a default judgment was entered in the landlord’s favor, or the tenant lost in court.
Cook has been a renter and landlord. She understands the risk of renting out a property. In her case, she feels she was wronged.
“I can’t figure out why this happened,” Cook said. “I do not destroy places. Deposits are returned to me after I leave a place. I have also rented out my house in the past, and cannot relate to [the landlord’s] behavior.”