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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

Advocates say NC bill will hurt tenants, and could financially benefit its primary sponsor

Tenants' rights advocates, like those pictured in Boston, have pushed for stronger protections for renters during the pandemic.
Michael Dwyer
The Texas state supreme court has allowed an emergency order to expire. Housing groups warn that could result in thousands of people losing their homes to eviction. Tenants' rights advocates, like those pictured here in Boston, have pushed for stronger protections for renters during the pandemic.

HB 551 is an omnibus bill for landlord interests. It includes several sections that housing advocates object to — including a new requirement that could increase business for the pet-vetting company owned by the bill's sponsor.

A bill featuring a host of legislation supporting landlords looks likely to pass both chambers, but it's getting pushback from tenant advocates, who say it will hurt renters.

House Bill 551 has four parts, three of which impact landlord-tenant relationships.

The bill bans cities and counties from enacting source of income non-discrimination policies. That means no local governments could institute protections for those who use Section 8 funding or VASH vouchers, which provide housing for veterans.

Cape Fear Housing Coalition vice-chair Liz Carbone says that part of the bill would hurt low-income renters.

“Whatever the opposite of having your cake and eating it, too, is what this is," she said.

The bill would essentially force every municipality to continue allowing discrimination against housing choice vouchers and other housing assistance. Currently, few localities in the state have provided these protections. Charlotte and Mecklenburg County are the exceptions, having passed ordinances protecting some renters. But those laws only apply to buildings that received government funding from Community Development Block Grants (CDBG).

After a rewrite, the bill now includes a carveout for CDBG buildings, or those which have received funding from, or are owned by the regional government. That protects Charlotte and Mecklenburg’s law, but advocates are frustrated that it would stop efforts in other cities, like Durham.

Profiting from Pet Screening

Another element of the bill that impacts the landlord-tenant relationship touches on pet policies. This section makes up the bulk of the bill, and Winston-Salem grassroots organizer Sud Krishnamurthy says it hurts vulnerable tenants.

“This piece of legislation also provides landlords with the ability to require tenants with service or support animals to provide written verification from health professionals regarding their disability, and then their requirement for a service and support animal,” Krishnamurthy explained. “We think this adds a significant barrier for disabled tenants and disabled folks in general, because we already know that disabled folks already have more difficulty accessing health care.”

He also said there’s a conflict of interest for one of the primary sponsors of the bill, Republican House Member John Bradford of Mecklenburg County.

“Representative John Bradford actually owned a pet screening company, and will directly profit off of the services that they provide as a result of this bill," he said.

Bradford, who recently announced that he’s running for state treasurer, is the proud owner of PetScreening.com, a company advertised as “The Industry's First & Leading Pet Policy Management Software.”

It aims to boost opportunities for “pet revenue”, verify assistance animals, and protect landlord assets with better data. The company gives tenants a “fido score,” based on their pets, and tracks them across rentals (the name is a play on the FICO score — the credit rating introduced in the late 1980s).

Bradford didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment, but WHQR tracked down a podcast appearance from 2019 in which he explains his business model and the “FIDO score.”

“We do this every day with tenants and their FICO scores, and we reflect that in the different security deposit amounts that we take to put in a trust account,” Bradford said in his appearance on the Profitable Powerhouse Properties podcast.

“This is a similar methodology. The difference is you're not dealing with a protected class: pets are not a protected class. So you have the full freedom to charge whatever you think the market will bear and whatever you think you should charge to cover your risk," Bradford said.

The bill that Bradford sponsors sets very clear legal expectations around who can classify an animal as a service or emotional support animal. According to PetScreening.com, Bradford’s software determines whether those certifications are legitimate. Bradford, who is running for state treasurer in 2024, has also registered numerous other animal-themed businesses. In January of 2023, he registered “PawVentures LLC,” and his Pet Screening LLC has registered a few other businesses, Insurance Pawlicy, L.L.C., and FidoTabby, LLC.

Advocates like Krishnamurthy are concerned that HB 551 was written specifically to benefit Bradford’s business.

The bill made it through crossover week, and now sits in the senate rules committee as SB 553. Senate Majority Whip, Jim Perry, is a primary sponsor.

The bill also targets tenants in other ways: for example, it specifically allows landlords to seek to recoup legal fees if a tenant appeals an eviction, among other financial damages related to litigation.

Evictions damage a tenant’s long-term prospects for renting, but legal experts have said this element of the bill could create a chilling effect for tenants who would otherwise fight one in court.

Carbone says the legislature has its priorities wrong.

“Here's what's so frustrating to me about this: At a time where our housing situation in the state and locally is worse than ever, at a time when all we talk about is how difficult it is to be a renter in, I mean, in the entire United States, but in North Carolina, I just don't understand why the legislative priority would be additional financial burdens on a person that's already going through the financial and emotional trauma of an eviction," she said.

WHQR reached out to The Apartment Association of North Carolina, an advocacy group that has lobbied for this legislation on behalf of multifamily landlords.

In a statement, AANC said its priorities relate to “the critical need to ease the housing affordability issues currently challenging our state. AANC believes HB 551 takes an important step toward that goal, addressing some of the regulatory burdens, fraud, and abuse that have contributed to rising rental costs in recent years. AANC is committed to working toward a solution that protects housing affordability without compromising the safety and welfare of its members and their tenants.”

The association did not respond to a follow-up request to clarify that statement or explain how, exactly, this bill would help affordability.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant on the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.