Addressing substandard housing in Ogden’s rental market: Lessons from whistleblower protection laws in the labor market
March 27, 2019
by Jennifer Gnagey, adjunct faculty of economics, Weber State University
Ogden School District is conducting its annual census of student homelessness. Last year this included 80 homeless students as well as 50 students housed in substandard conditions, often lacking functional heating, electricity, water, kitchen, or toilet facilities. While offering substandard housing for rent is illegal, data suggest tenants keep quiet for fear of landlord retaliation. This is a legitimate fear.
The Utah Fit Premises Act asserts renters’ rights to housing that provides adequate heating, plumbing, electrical systems, hot and cold running water, and general safety and sanitation. If a landlord fails to make timely repairs in these areas, tenants can report substandard conditions to Ogden Code Enforcement or the Weber Morgan Health Department who have the authority to enforce housing standards. However, involving authorities may irritate the landlord and prompt retaliation. There are currently no federal or Utah state laws that prohibit retaliation in the form of rent increases or decreased services. If the landlord retaliates by not renewing the lease, the Utah Supreme Court recognizes retaliation as a legal defense to eviction. However, even if the tenants can prove the landlord’s retaliatory motive, the landlord need only given them a “reasonable opportunity” to move by providing sufficient time to find a new place. This forces tenants to make a choice between housing quality and housing stability. For low-income tenants, the prospect of finding a new apartment, including meeting income and credit qualifications and coming up with the security deposit and application fees, is often worse than living in substandard conditions.
This stands in contrast with the employee whistleblower protection laws in the labor market. There are several reasons why the labor market makes a good comparison for the rental market. First, both markets involve contractual relationships between two parties: employment contracts in the labor market and lease agreements in the rental market. Second, both markets generally allow either party to independently leave the contracted relationship, as provided by law and according to the terms of the contract. In the labor market, employees can typically leave at will by giving two weeks’ notice, and employers can fire employees without needing to provide a reason. In the rental market, either the landlord or the tenant can choose not to renew the lease agreement after it expires provided appropriate notice is given. Neither party is required to defend a reason. A third similarity is that both markets recognize a need to put some limits on one party’s power to leave the contract in order to protect other individual rights. For example, although employers and landlords need not give reasons for firing an employee or choosing not to renew a lease, doing so for discriminatory reasons is illegal according to fair housing and equal employment opportunity laws. Anti-retaliation and whistleblower protection laws are also examples of such limits.
Whistleblower protection laws are spread across a broad range of federal and state codes. While no single law covers all employees and all situations, perhaps the most well-known provisions with the most direct parallel to the rental market are the whistleblower protections granted by the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA.) Under OSHA, employees who, in good faith, file a health or safety violation claim against their employers are explicitly protected against a number of unfavorable employment actions such as firing, pay cuts, demotion, and other forms of harassment. Because this protection is guaranteed by law, not just court case precedent, employees experiencing unfavorable action can sue their employers for illegal retaliation. Furthermore, employers are not let off the hook simply for giving affected employees sufficient time to find a new job.
Within the US, 42 states as well as the District of Columbia, have laws that explicitly protect tenants against landlord retaliation, similar to employee whistleblower protections. Utah is not one of them. It is time for Utah to bring its rental housing laws into the 21st century. The Utah Apartment Association (UAA) is a powerful force in state rental housing policy. UAA support for retaliation protection at the state level would be a strong catalyst for change. Local Chambers of Commerce can also support retaliation protection laws as they further ethical business practices. Locally, citizens and city council members can support a retaliation protection ordinance or a requirement that landlords participating in Ogden’s Good Landlord program grant tenants retaliation protection. Such legislative change is necessary to protect Ogden tenants who stand up for their rights to safe and decent housing. For many years, we have recognized the need for such protection in the labor market. The rental market should be no different.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jennifer Gnagey joined the faculty of Weber State University in 2014 and currently serves as an adjunct faculty of economics at the Goddard School of Business & Economics. In addition to BS and MA degrees, Gnagey holds a PhD in applied economics from Ohio State University.
She teaches a variety of economics and quantitative methods courses in the Goddard School’s undergraduate programs (e.g. Principles of Macroeconomics, Labor Economics, Business Calculus).
Gnagey’s research focuses on the economics of education. Her interests range from charter school evaluation to the relationships between how students pay for college and their academic and labor market outcomes. She is also involved with Weber State’s Center for Community Engaged Learning and its Economic Inequality Initiative.