Central Arkansas venues have a full week of commemorative events planned
Brenda Glover, 53, of Little Rock, is taking her loss of her federal housing allowance to federal court, a move attorneys say is rare.
"They give you a book on rules and regulations," Glover said. "If you read it you know your rights." Not everybody reads it — not everybody can, she added. "When it's a government-funded thing, when you abide by the rules on your side, they should do the same thing."
The Metropolitan Housing Alliance informed Glover it was terminating her Section 8 housing voucher (such vouchers are funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) because her landlord had issued her a notice to vacate for nonpayment of rent. Glover, however, had a letter from her landlord acknowledging she had arranged to pay her rent. Her lawyers have filed a class-action lawsuit against Little Rock's housing authority claiming she was denied due process.
The MHA — which is overseen by the Little Rock Housing Authority board of commissioners — has been in the news in the past few years, most recently June 4, when Executive Director Rodney Forte was found guilty in Little Rock District Court of failing to comply with the state Freedom of Information Act. In 2013, Forte fired an employee after the employee awarded a contract to his own business. The previous director, Shelly Ehenger, was fired by the board after complaints of nepotism and improper hiring practices.
In July 2014, according to the lawsuit filed Nov. 3 in federal District Judge Leon Holmes' court, Glover's housing allowance was reduced after her daughter and her daughter's two children moved out. (Another daughter and two grandchildren remained in the household.) Glover, who has arthritis and has a monthly income of $746, could no longer afford the apartment — her share of the rent went from $1 to $303 a month — so she asked the MHA to transfer her Section 8 voucher to a smaller, cheaper rental unit. The transfer could not take place until September, so she borrowed money from family, friends and her church to pay July's rent, and asked her landlord, Rental Realty Inc., if it would use part of her $850 security deposit to pay August's. The landlord agreed in writing to the arrangement, the lawsuit says.
However, the landlord then told Glover it was going to take her entire deposit — more than twice the rent — and she filed a complaint with the state Attorney General's Office. Learning she'd complained, the landlord gave her a 10-day notice to vacate, saying she'd not paid for August — despite their signed agreement that it would accept her security deposit for the month's rent — and sent notice of the eviction to the MHA. At that point, the MHA notified Glover it was terminating her housing allowance.
Two days after the landlord issued the notice to vacate, Glover tried again to pay the August rent, but Rental Realty would not accept it. In September, Glover paid her rent on Sept. 5, but again the landlord would not accept it and served another notice to vacate.
A handwritten note at the bottom of a document authorizing the mutual rescission of the lease with Glover says, "Rental Realty is releasing Brenda Glover from her current lease. Her outstanding balance owed will be paid with her security deposit that she put down." But Jordan Haas, owner of Rental Realty, said Tuesday that his company would not have agreed to accept a security deposit in lieu of rent. He said there were unpaid tenant-related repairs due the agency.
Meanwhile, on Sept. 4, the MHA held an administrative hearing to hear Glover's appeal of the termination of her housing benefits. Glover sought the assistance of legal aid — the Arkansas Legal Services Partnership — to assist her in the appeal.
The hearing officer — who was unable to cite the exact regulation under which Glover's voucher was being terminated — would not consider the landlord's statement that he'd agreed to deduct the August rent, and turned down Glover's appeal. The MHA told Glover and her lawyers it would only consider the landlord's notice to vacate. MHA employees, the lawsuit says, told Glover that "these practices were routine practices." Glover, through her lawyers, says the MHA's decision not to wait until the eviction had been adjudicated before terminating her voucher denied her due process under federal law.
In a transcript of the hearing, the hearing officer, Asonja Nuckolls, said the fact that Glover had been a model tenant since she'd been in the Section 8 program since 2006 could not be a factor in the housing authority's decision.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request by lawyers David Slade, John C. Williams and Hank Bates, who volunteered help to Glover's legal aid team, MHA provided information that showed that 964 families have lost their Section 8 benefits as a result of having received a notice to vacate since Oct. 24, 2011. (Lawyers now believe the number is likely smaller, but still large enough to constitute a class.)
Stacy Fletcher, one of Glover's legal aid attorneys, said they appealed to the MHA's board of commissioners but received no response.
The somewhat rare decision to go to federal court came because "we had an idea that there was a potentially bigger issue," said Fletcher, whose specialty is landlord-tenant disputes. (Fletcher is not a party to the federal lawsuit because legal aid lawyers cannot bring class actions.)
The MHA's procedure — declining to wait on a judge's ruling on whether a tenant violated the terms of a lease before terminating a voucher — appears to be one more facet in Arkansas's troubled landlord-tenant relations.
Fletcher and other lawyers say that because there are so many tenants waiting in line for Section 8 vouchers, landlords don't have to work with the tenants they have. "If you have a problem with a tenant, there is just another one there," she said.
Glover had to go to trial in circuit court Sept. 2 over the first criminal eviction. The charge was nol prossed. At a trial Oct. 8 on the second criminal eviction, Judge Alice Lightle granted a motion to dismiss — filed not by Glover's attorneys but by the plaintiff's.
In January, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herb Wright ruled the state's criminal eviction unconstitutional. Judges in Craighead, Poinsett and Woodruff counties later ruled the same. Still, Arkansas is judged to have the worst landlord-tenant laws in the nation: Landlords are not required to provide the tenant a warranty of habitability. Tenants can't go on rent strike to force repairs, for example; they have no leverage. Equally important, not every judicial district has ruled the criminal eviction law unconstitutional.
"Our clients are poor and very vulnerable," Fletcher said, many of them in school and working and trying to get ahead. "Landlords are able to get money from the government, federal funds, but are not required to provide safe and decent housing."
While the condition of her home was not at issue in the Glover case, Fletcher said other places that take Section 8 vouchers have been found to have rats, open sewage, mold and other problems. Federal law does set "home quality standards," she said, but tenants have to act to make landlords abide by the rules.
Glover also claims that her new landlord has complained that the MHA is slow to make the federal rent payments.
The suit makes both individual and class claims for wrongful termination of benefits, failure to provide sufficient notice of termination, failure to permit evidence and cross-examination of witnesses, failure to base a decision on evidence presented at a hearing, failure to provide an impartial hearing officer and failure to issue a timely and adequate written decision after the informal hearing. The suit asks the court to enjoin the MHA to reinstate Section 8 vouchers for Glover and the class and compensate them for voucher payments improperly terminated.
Director Forte said the agency would have no comment during the litigation.
Judge Holmes has set a trial date for the week of April 4, 2016.
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