In early October, Petrice Howard noticed hundreds of tiny water droplets beading the ceiling of her daughters' bedroom in her rented Baring Cross home. Soon after, black mold spread across the walls, ceiling and baseboards of the bedroom and then spread to the bathroom and an adjoining room, her sons' bedroom. Howard notified her landlord immediately.
A month later, when nothing had been done, she reported the problem to North Little Rock code enforcement. Two days after the city's inspection, Howard received a warning from Big Dog Homes LLC that because her house wasn't "in order," she had broken her year-long lease, and no more rent would be accepted until she rectified the situation. Two weeks after that, Howard received a 10-day notice to vacate.
"I wrote the owner a letter and asked what policy has she violated? You just can't go in and evict a person because their house isn't set up the way you want it," said Alicia Walton-Middleton, Howard's neighbor and a criminal and family attorney. Walton-Middleton, who learned of Howard's predicament through the Baring Cross Neighborhood Association, believes the eviction notice was retaliation against Howard for calling code officers.
Arkansas renters have fewer rights than those in any other state. For example: Arkansas is the only state in the nation without an implied warranty of habitability, which means Arkansas landlords are not required to make repairs or maintain their properties. Arkansas is one of only 10 states that don't prohibit retaliatory eviction.
The Non-Legislative Commission on the Study of Landlord-Tenant Laws, created in 2011 by the legislature, released a report Dec. 31 recommending 15 tenant-landlord law reforms.
"Ninety percent of landlords are good people, and 90 percent of tenants are good people, and we take care of our places to start with," said Howard Warren, who represents the Landlords Association of Arkansas on the commission. "The warranty of habitability is something the landlords would actually support, because it would make it harder for the bad landlords to make us all look bad."
Lynn Foster, professor at the William H. Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and a member of the study commission, said, "If you're on a month to month lease, maybe it says the landlord makes repairs, maybe it doesn't — but if you report something to code, the first thing the landlord is going to do is try and evict you. That's why it's imperative that if we adopt a warranty of habitability, we also adopt a statute prohibiting retaliatory eviction."
Erin O'Leary with Arkansas Legal Services, a nonprofit that provides legal aid to low-income plaintiffs, says that a large part of the agency's business is helping tenants. "If your heat breaks, you can't withhold your rent or use your rent money to fix the heat. No matter what your living conditions, your responsibility to pay your rent on time and in full is never removed. For our clients of very limited means, they're choosing to get their heat fixed or to pay their rent on time. ... If they have to pay to get the heat fixed, the only mechanism to get that money back is to file in small claims court. But that's a lengthy process, and our clients can't wait a long time to get back $700."
The commission calls for changes in state law rather than relying on municipal codes, which are lacking in smaller towns and which are slow to be enforced where they do exist. They also don't cover all circumstances: While mechanical issues are covered by code, in cities where code exists, there are no guidelines for problems such as mold. "For me to prosecute you, as a landlord, I have to show you where you are violating the law," said Tom Wadley, North Little Rock Code Enforcement director. He refers mold calls to the state Department of Health.