When it comes to the rights of tenants, Arkansas has among the most imbalanced laws in the nation, according to University of Arkansas at Little Rock law professor Lynn Foster. Foster served on a commission on landlord-tenant laws that recommended various reforms earlier this year.
Not everyone was happy with the report — despite having a member serve on the commission, the Arkansas Realtors Association fired off a letter last October to Michael Schwartz, Dean of the UALR William H. Bowen School of Law, complaining about Foster's work on the commission and other activities. Schwartz quickly determined that Foster had done nothing wrong. So why did the realtors lobby send a heavy-handed letter to the law school expressing "grave concerns" and alleging "a serious breach of the public trust"?
The Arkansas Non-Legislative Commission on the Study of Landlord-Tenant Laws was created by the 2011 General Assembly to analyze landlord-tenant laws in Arkansas and other states and make recommendations. Foster was a vice chair of the commission and the primary author of its final report, which was submitted in January of this year. The report found that "Arkansas's residential landlord-tenant law is significantly out of balance" and that "Arkansas residential tenants have significantly fewer rights than tenants in any other state."
For example, Arkansas is the only state in the nation that makes failure to pay rent a criminal violation and the only state in the nation that does not require landlords to maintain safe, sanitary and fit premises for tenants to live in. The report made 15 recommendations, suggesting reforms to address those failings, as well as improving the civil eviction procedure, disallowing certain "unconscionable" provisions in leases, prohibiting "retaliatory evictions" when landlords evict a tenant who exercises legal rights and other suggestions for reform.
The 10 members of the commission were, broadly speaking, split five-five between members with a background in the interests of landlords and members inclined to create additional protections for tenants. The commission's 15 recommendations, and the report as a whole, were unanimously approved by all 10 commissioners.
"It was a really diverse task force," said commission member Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix (and a columnist with Arkansas Times). "By the end everybody learned a lot. We worked together well. Those of us who were concerned about the potential abuse of tenants gained a lot of knowledge about how frustrating it can be for a landlord in terms of folks not paying their rent and there's no good process in Arkansas for getting that done. Conversely, I think some of the landlord folks in the room came to see some concerns about the potential abuse of tenants and the reality that in certain cases there are bad actors in the landlord community."
Barth said that, after the eight-month process, he believed the commission, despite some areas of disagreement, had found common ground. "There was a lot of consensus," he said. "Everybody was giving up a little something and the system was going to be a lot better for everybody."
Commission Chair Stephen Giles, a Little Rock real estate attorney, agreed: "We got that cooperation from everybody. Everyone had a chance to chime in, object, or offer suggestions."
However, just a few weeks after the report was delivered to the governor and leaders in the House and Senate, five of the commission members released a "letter of clarification," stating that "we have found it necessary to write a separate letter, as we do not believe the final report clearly reflected all viewpoints."
Foster said she was taken aback by this follow-up letter — which was not discussed with the other members of the commission — since all members had voted on the recommendations after a great deal of discussion. Everyone, she said, had seen the final language in the report, which had been tweaked multiple times after suggestions from commission members, including from members who signed the new letter. Foster kept the relevant e-mails confirming that the report's recommendations were unanimous and that all members had voted to approve.
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