Renters

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					For immediate release Jan. 15, 2009 By MOLLY PRIDDY Community News Service UM School of Journalism HELENA – Montanans renters are asking lawmakers for help against landlords who unfairly withhold security deposits, fail to provide copies of leases and don't turn up the heat. Such complaints moved Rep. Deborah Kottel, D-Great Falls, to introduce two bills, House bills 188 and 189, which came before the House Business and Labor Committee Thursday. House Bill 188, would grant greater damages to renters who successfully sue landlords who wrongfully withhold security deposits. The bill would allow damages of three times the amount of the deposit. Current law limits damages to legal costs and the amount of the deposit. “It‟s to give landlords pause,” said Kottel, who added that the current law is hardly a deterrent, much less a punishment. “How is forfeiting someone else‟s money that you wrongfully withheld a punishment?” Kottel asked. Annie Hamilton, an attorney for the Associated Students of the University of Montana legal services, said there is little to stop landlords from keeping deposits. “I liken this to telling your children, „Don‟t cheat and don‟t steal, but if you do there‟s no penalty,‟” Hamilton said. “Something is desperately needed to bring parity back to the relationship.” Other supporters included ASUM, representatives from Montana State University and Montana State University – Billings, Montana Women Vote, Montana Public Interest Research Group, the Montana Trial Lawyers Association and individual renters. But opponents to the bill said similar penalties for withholding security deposits were removed from the Residential Landlord and Tenant Act in 1997 because they were unfair to landlords. “For every dollar that is wrongfully withheld, there‟s ten to a hundred dollars that landlords are having to put into properties over and above the security deposits to restore these properties from renters,” said Roger Halver of the Montana Landlords Association. “So of course they‟re sensitive to the issue of returning security deposits.” The other opponents included the Montana Association of Realtors. Meanwhile, House Bill 189 would require landlords to give tenants copies of lease agreements and written notice of extensions. It would also require that landlords keep the heat turned up to at least 68 degrees in cooler months. “To me, this is a no-brainer,” Kottel said. Current Montana law says once a year-long lease is up, the tenant, by default, moves to a month-to-month lease, if the lease is not formally extended. However,

some renters said landlords are automatically extending annual leases by another year, without proper notice. Jane Walsh, a University of Montana student and single mother, said she was surprised by a note from her landlord saying that because she hadn‟t given notice 20 days earlier that she wanted to move out, her annual lease would be extended automatically. “There was no way I could comply with this letter without traveling through time,” Walsh said. Denver Henderson, who assists off-campus renters at the University of Montana, said transparency is necessary when extending a lease. “If it requires a bilateral agreement to enter into a contract, it should require a bilateral agreement to extend it,” Henderson said. But the MLA‟s Halver said he did not see this as an issue for Legislature because such cases are rare. “In my experience as an auditor/investigator, these are not widespread problems,” he said. He also took issue with what he called the arbitrary temperature assigned to the reasonable heating clause. Current law requires landlords to provide “reasonable” heating to tenants, but Kottel said that‟s too ambiguous. She said Missoula Realtors agreed that 68 degrees from September 1 to June 1 was sensible. -30-


				
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