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No relief for renters 

If you are hoping to see new laws that improve rights for people who rent homes or apartments in Arkansas, you will find disappointing two bills proposed so far this legislative session — SB 25, by Sen. Blake Johnson (R-Corning), and HB 1166, by Rep. Laurie Rushing (R-Hot Springs). Even if both bills become statute, Arkansas would still have the worst landlord tenant laws in the country. Remaining on premises after failing to pay rent on time would still be a crime, and landlords would still be allowed to rent out dilapidated and dangerous houses with no legal repercussions.

There are two major flaws in Arkansas's landlord-tenant law; each of the proposed bills takes aim at one of them and misses. First, Arkansas law allows criminal evictions in which tenants can be jailed for not paying rent on time. SB 25 does improve the "failure to vacate" statute so that tenants don't have to pay all of what their landlord alleges they owe before going to trial, and it lessens the chances of jail time. However, it does not change the fact that being a day late on rent means a tenant forfeits his lease, or that remaining in the home 11 days after a landlord gives notice to leave is considered a crime — a provision that is unique to Arkansas. Every other state uses civil evictions, meaning landlords cannot threaten tenants with fines and jail time over late rent.

The second bill, HB 1166, attempts to address the other major shortcoming in tenant rights: standards of habitability. Under existing law, Arkansas landlords are under practically no legal obligation to maintain the condition of their rental properties. All other states require a landlord to make repairs, and virtually all require a landlord to offer and maintain fit and habitable premises. HB 1166 adds a minimal list of maintenance requirements that must be met by landlords, but it is by no means adequate or comparable to the standards of all other states.

HB 1166 requires air conditioning and heat (but only if it was already there at the beginning of the lease); electricity, water and sewage that are up to code (but only based on the codes as they stood when the building was constructed); and walls topped with a functioning roof. A residence lacking these requirements could hardly be considered a residence at all. Again, this bill lacks real teeth. Unlike every other state, Arkansas tenants would still have no legal authority to withhold or deduct rent because of black mold, bed-bug infestations, no floor, exterior doors that don't lock or other major code violations.

Of course, these bills could still be amended to outlaw criminal evictions and include the habitability standards employed by every other state. But bills that include language to protect renters have come up before in the Arkansas Legislature and have either been shot down or weakened by landlord-friendly amendments. For example, the Uniform Residential Landlord Tenant Act became law in 2007 after many attempts — but only after the legislature threw out the pro-tenant positions and kept the provisions that were good for landlords. That is thanks to interest groups representing landlords, realtors and insurance companies who benefit from the imbalance in the law.

There's another shadow of hope for tenant rights in Arkansas from the judicial branch. In 2015, a circuit judge overturned the current statute for criminal evictions in Pulaski County in a case involving a tenant who was accused of owing $22,000 in back rent. She would have had to pay the alleged debt before being heard in court, according the law at the time. The tenant, understandably, did not have those funds and was denied her constitutional right to trial. The judge ruled the criminal eviction statute was in violation of both federal and state constitutions, holding that it was unconstitutional in five different ways — but the ruling only applied to Pulaski County.

Circuit courts in at least three Arkansas counties later found the criminal eviction law to be unconstitutional, and many district courts don't bother to enforce it. SB 25 would actually be a step backward in counties where criminal evictions are either formally or informally renounced by the judicial branch, because landlords in those counties would again be urging courts to hear failure-to-vacate cases, due to the statute change. We can hope for incremental progress in other circuit courts or wait for a ruling by the state Supreme Court. We could also hold our breath for stronger legislation from our representatives at the Capitol, but that would mean legislators standing up to some heavyweight lobby groups.

As they now stand, these bills won't change much for tenants who want a safe, habitable place for their families to live without the fear of criminal prosecution, but there is room for hope. For one, there are admirable groups like Arkansas Access to Justice that continue to fight on behalf of tenants in our state. For another, tenants have numbers on their side. There are far more tenants out there than landlords, and a coalition of vocal, voting renters can stir up change that has, until now, been blocked by small but powerful groups.

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