HELENA – State Sen. Roger Webb of Billings, who owns a variety of rental property with his wife, Rep. Peggy Webb, says they have plenty of great tenants – but when they have bad ones, it’s become increasingly difficult to hold those tenants accountable.
“The pendulum has swung to the point where it’s not equitable, because of the current existing laws,” he told MTN News in an interview this week. “Right now, there is literally no way to hold a bad tenant accountable for their actions.”
Sen. Webb says the legal playing field needs to be adjusted, between landlord and tenant – and he and his wife have sponsored a dozen bills to achieve that goal, proposing changes in the 40-year-old Montana Residential Landlord and Tenant Act.
Most of the bills remain alive before the Legislature.
But they’re passing largely on the strength of party-line votes, with majority Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed. The Webbs are Republicans.
Critics of the bills say they’re written to give more power to landlords, in disputes with tenants, and “chip away” at tenants’ rights.
“We don’t need to have efforts in the Legislature to make it easier for landlords to take advantage of renters, or take actions against renters,” says Rep. Zach Brown, D-Bozeman, who is one of the few renters in the Legislature.
Most of the bills also appear to be headed for the desk of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, who hasn’t taken a position on specific ones. However, his office said Wednesday the governor has concerns about a “shotgun approach to dealing with landlord-tenant issues,” and that perhaps they deserve a more studied examination.
Bullock signed one of the bills into law Tuesday: Rep. Peggy Webb’s House Bill 350, which allows tenants to set up automatic electronic payments and clarifies how a rental agreement can go month-to-month, once a lease period expires.
But the fate of the others, when and if they hit the governors’ desk, remains to be seen.
Some of these bills include:
Senate Bill 174, which allows the landlord to require the tenant to vacate the premises when the rental agreement is terminated, including after non-payment of rent.
SB175, which gives the landlord more power to enter a rental unit to make repairs, if a rental agreement is violated and damages occur, and bill the tenant for the cost of those repairs.
SB276, which clarifies the definition of prohibited “retaliation” by a landlord, but also says if a tenant claims retaliation in “bad faith,” the landlord can recover a civil penalty and attorney costs from the tenant.
HB348, which requires the tenant to notify the landlord if any additional people move into the rental unit, and get the landlord’s written permission.
Two of the more controversial bills from Sen. Roger Webb have been killed or stalled in committee: One to make non-payment of rent a crime, and another that could require judges to collect payment of judgments for non-payment of rent.
Sen. Webb says the bills that remain alive shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and that he has “some very good Democratic friends that are landlords,” whose ideas contributed to some of the bills.
“It kind of surprised me that the resistance (from Democrats) is there,” he says. “The bills’ intent is not to be harmful. Their intent is to be helpful. I hope when they reach the governor’s desk, he looks at them in that tense.”
Webb also says in many cases, government agencies and law enforcement interpret the current landlord-tenant laws differently, and that bills from him and his wife are meant to clarify the law.
Brown says if problems with the landlord-tenant laws exist, it’s better to study them in a bipartisan, interim committee, which can come up with solutions for the next Legislature, after hearing from all parties involved.
“I just think we need to defend against efforts to tilt the scales too far in one direction or another,” he says.
A House resolution proposing such a study was heard in committee earlier this week.