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After criminalizing renting to the undocumented, Alabama gave landlords greater power to evict tenants

Alabama’s new immigration law includes a provision that would ban landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants, one of the many provisions being challenged by civil and immigrant rights groups in court. These groups believe that the renting provision will lead to discrimination not only against immigrants but against anyone suspected of being undocumented, particularly Hispanics.

But a new law that was passed on the last day of Alabama’s legislative session may intensify the effects of the immigration law on immigrant and Hispanic tenants. The bill amended Alabama’s Landlord and Tenant Act, making it easier for landlords to terminate rental agreements and shortening the time tenants have to appeal before they are evicted from their homes.

Alabama’s landlord-tenant law was passed in 2006 under a Democratic legislature (before its passage, Alabama was the only state in the country not to have a tenants’ rights law). The law allowed tenants to more easily compel their landlords to provide necessary services in their dwellings, and protected them from retribution from their landlords for complaining about poor living conditions. It also streamlined the process by which landlords could collect unpaid rent, establishing a seven-business-day waiting period after landlords notify their tenant before they can begin the eviction process. In short, the law benefited both tenants and landlords to a certain extent.

HB 423 (PDF), which was passed on June 9, gave new powers to landlords, allowing them to terminate rental agreements after a fourteen-day waiting period if a tenant commits “an intentional misrepresentation of a material fact in a rental agreement or application,” meaning the landlord believes that the tenant lied or misled the landlord on some issue relevant to the lease. The power is granted only to landlords; tenants have no equal power to cancel their lease because of a landlord’s “misrepresentation of a material fact.”

A landlord can knowingly rent to an undocumented immigrant, says Alabama Appleseed’s legal director Shay Farley, and on any particular day use a tenant’s undocumented status as an excuse to invalidate their rental agreement with only a fourteen-day waiting period to contest the decision. That period can be shortened to seven days if the tenant accused of being undocumented is also late on their rent.

“If you knew all along that Jose Gonzalez was an undocumented immigrant, but if you don’t like him as a tenant because he pays on the seventh and not the fifth, you can go back and say ‘you misrepresented material fact’, and that will validate terminating his lease,” Farley says.

Farley points out that the law provides no definition of what facts could be construed as relevant to the rental agreement: “It doesn’t have to be immigration related; for example, it could be your marriage status.” Misrepresenting a material fact is also a “noncurable” offense, meaning that the tenant cannot remedy the offense, like in the case of unpaid rent. A tenant accused by their landlord of misrepresenting a material fact therefore must either ask the landlord to forgive the offense, or somehow demonstrate that the “fact” isn’t relevant to the rental agreement.

“HB 423 absolutely gutted the 2006 Landlord Tenant Act,” says Farley. “The Act was created to equal the playing field between to the landlord and the tenant. But the realtors association every year fought against these changes and this year they had the votes do it.”

The Alabama Association of Realtors, which by representing property owners also represents landlords, had not responded to The American Independent’s request for comment as of publish time.

In addition to the “material fact” offense, the law lists three other “noncurable” offenses that a landlord could use as grounds for terminating the lease: possession or use of illegal drugs on the rental property or “common area”; discharge of a firearm on the property (except in cases of self-defense or defense of a third party); and criminal assault of another tenant or guest while on the property. Farley believes that the “possession or use” offense could lead, for example, to a grandmother being evicted because her grandson is smoking pot in the backyard.

The law also cut down on the amount of time tenants have to contest a landlord’s decision to terminate their rental agreement by changing the Landlord and Tenant Act’s definition of “days” from business to calendar days.

“Basically you’ve got very short time deadlines, and you may not have necessarily found out that you have a case against you,” says Larry Gardella, director of advocacy at Legal Services Alabama. “If you’re a tenant who doesn’t have a lawyer you’re going to have your eviction notice mailed to you. If you get the notice on Thursday, it arrives in the mail on Monday, and you’re going to have only three days to appeal.”

Farley says the bill was originally described as a compromise by its proponents, by putting in the requirement that the aggrieved party in a contested rental agreement receive attorneys’ fees. “It’s bilateral and that’s how they sold it,” she says.

But because of the fact that many low-income tenants don’t have the time or resources to obtain an attorney in the first place, the benefits of attorney’s fees requirement will mostly flow to landlords and their lawyers.

“There are fewer dollars spent on legal aid per poor person in Alabama than in Puerto Rico,” says Gardella. “We’re 51st out of 50 states.” His own organization, which provides civil legal aid to low-income people, has, “about 116 employees” working in a state with “maybe a million people with problems.”

Gardella says that the legislature may not have intended to deal such a blow to tenants’ rights.

“This was presented as a compromise, people in both houses believed that the realtors had compromised,” Gardella says, which was why it was passed so quickly (on the last day of the session) and with such universal support, with not a single state senator and only six state representatives voting against the proposed reforms.

Whatever the legislators’ intentions may have been, however, the landlord-tenant reforms represent a particular threat to anyone who landlords suspect might be undocumented, including the state’s small but growing (though that could change) population of Hispanics. With one law, Gov. Robert Bentley and the Alabama legislature threatened landlords with up to twenty years in jail if they rent to undocumented immigrants without giving landlords any sound way to verify legal status. With another law, they have given landlords the legal means to end any existing leases, using suspicion of undocumented status or any other “materially relevant fact” as an excuse to evict tenants quickly and quietly.

The result could be what Farley calls an “intensifying effect,” as the two laws combine to imperil the rental housing of any suspected undocumented immigrant in the state.

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