• Sebastian Waricks

The Lack of Laws to Protect Renters in Arkansas May Worsen Covid-19 Public Health Crisis

Updated: Mar 21, 2021


Lake Ouachita in Arkansas. Photo by Oliver Graham on Unsplash.


In a state such as Arkansas, landlords are allowed to ruthlessly retaliate against tenants with impunity causing even the media to censor themselves when reporting on tenant-landlord conflict to protect the tenant. If the media feels the need to self censor themselves, chances are there are thousands of abused tenants who are self censoring and feel too disempowered to openly stand against their landlords. These conditions will make it impossible to know the extent of how landlord abuse is exacerbating the Covid-19 public health crisis. Over the decade, published articles that discuss the rental experience in Arkansas have been floating around with the number one question that remains without an answer, Is Arkansas the worst state to rent in America? I too will withhold answering such a question but will state that the criminalization of evictions will deepen the pending eviction crisis which will then deepen the Covid-19 public health crisis. In addition, crucial laws that would require landlords to maintain housing that is “safe, sanitary, and fit for human habitation” is tragically absent from Arkansas' law books. This extreme legal neglect of renters in Arkansas will surely exacerbate the Covid-19 public health crisis.


Zakyrah Gilbert knows all too well the power that landlords have to create unsafe health conditions, let them fester and threaten even more retaliation. When Gilbert moved in, she was relentlessly attacked by bug bites, then a maintenance man busted a hole in her bathroom, in a futile attempt to fix a problem located within another unit. “They came inside my home when I was asleep and broke all of this due to the home downstairs that no one stays in. I mean it was really nasty. I still can’t use my sink.” During a Covid-19 pandemic where washing your hands is imperative to staying healthy and to prevent contracting the virus, how many other mishaps across Arkansas that have resulted in unsanitary and unusable sinks exist under the radar? I agree with Gilbert’s mother Nacole Gilbert who commented that ‘It’s unhealthy and unsafe to me.” In another case, Cashwana Chitman moved into a three bedroom house in October 2011 with her three children. For the first month, Chitman did not have running water. “I had to fill water jugs to wash clothes and flush the toilet. I had to take my kids to other people’s houses to shower -and they were in school at the time.” To make matters worse, the air conditioner broke which resulted in her and her family to suffer from heat sickness. All of these conditions have the potential to weaken anyone’s immune system to a rampant virus. There was no legal recourse for Chitman. Other tenants may be experiencing the same issues during a pandemic without any legal options. According to the Human Rights Watch, “Tenants in Arkansas cannot go to court to compel their landlords to provide heat or hot water or prevent the property they are renting from deteriorating to the point where it becomes a health and safety hazard”.


Tenants’-rights activists boldly provide an answer to why Arkansas is the worst state to rent in America, Arkansas is the only state without “an implied warranty of habitability.” Arkansas landlords cannot be legally held accountable to “make repairs or ensure rental properties are in a livable condition.” The issues that result from landlord neglect can cause a cascade of uncontrollable public health issues according to a study conducted by city leaders such as “psychological behavior dysfunctions, elevated blood levels, and even higher risks of child maltreatment.” To rectify the issue, laws are needed to advocate on the behalf of tenants such as a state eviction moratorium and thorough laws to prevent a public health crisis from sprouting from tenant abuse. City Director for Ward Two in Little Rock Ken Richardson states, “I think we need to have the penalties strict enough, harsh enough that it makes owners and managers address those issues that are unhealthy.” However for over six years State Representative Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, has been unable to pass legislation for “warranty of habitability.” Leding explains, “Our state is the only one in the country that doesn’t have a warranty of habitability which means that a negligent landlord could knowingly rent you an unsafe space …” The issue remains because maltreatment by landlords is hidden under their immense power and the widely touted belief that most landlords are not toxic. If a landlord were abusive, most likely tenants would remain quiet to avoid being evicted. Even Leding shied away from answering if Arkansas had the worst renter laws in the nation and instead claimed that “I think most landlords, 98 percent or 99 percent of all landlords are good people who do right by their tenants and their are absolutely bad tenants who just tear up the property…” In the same article Samantha Higgins, assistant director for Off-Campus Student Services of University of Arkansas, was adamant that tenant-landlord conflicts are rooted in the tenants being wrong. She claims that in the case that a landlord is the issue it is usually from the only small, mom and pop landlords, “So, the people that really try to take advantage of renters are going to be kind of your small-time landlord, kind of like your mom and pop landlord”. She marginalizes renters and the need for laws protecting renters by stating “Most of the time when I talk to a student and they’re in trouble or they have an issue, it’s because the renter is in the wrong, and the renter has violated the lease.


President Trump Meets with the Governor of Arkansas and the Governor of Kansas on May 20, 2020. Photo by the White House.


The brutal, landlord friendly eviction laws also contribute to the budding Covid-19 public health crisis in Arkansas. As Kendall Lewellen, the Housing Law Practice Group Leader at Arkansas Legal Services states, “The covid crisis has exacerbated their situation because it’s not a good time for anybody to be going out and touring apartments or trying to rent a moving truck.” Since Arkansas is a landlord friendly state, the Governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson has not felt that it was in the best interest of the state to pass an eviction moratorium. Governor Asa Hutchinson stated in a press conference on April 29 that, “I expect landlords to work in a humanitarian fashion....We know that they need to be patient...Arkansans have been generous to one another in previous disasters and I believe they are doing the same under this emergency.” He said that the volume of legal eviction cases was currently lower than normal. “We’ll continue to reassess based on the court filings that we see, but so far a moratorium seems unwarranted.” He said that he was “relying upon the trust relationship.” between renters and landlords. This image of humanitarianism that Governor Hutchinson is promoting on the behalf of landlords contrasts sharply to reality of how landlords are behaving.


Evictions are still being filed en masse during a pandemic after the courts reopened on May 18, 2020. Fayetteville-based Lindsey Management, aggressively sent notices stating to tenants that, “If your account is not paid by the 6th of the month, management will begin the legal eviction process, which may result in your being liable for any attorney’s fees and costs incurred.” Their counsel Anne Mourney explained, “The residents are expected to continue to pay rent. It’s important to them to do that because they have a lease and they want to keep their home.” East Oaks/Oakshire Apartments also will not budge from lease agreements made prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and states “There will not be any exceptions made like the ones that were allowed for April. The decision has been made that May rent payments will be required as per the terms of the lease.” The lack of an eviction moratorium has caused Leding to change his position and unequivocally confirm that Arkansas is the worst state in the nation to rent. “We have seen red areas and blue areas pass a moratorium...To me, it is not surprising that the state that is literally the worst [in the country] for renters would not take this kind of action” he observed.


In one severe case, a woman named Tracee Marsh was recovering from Covid-19 and received a civil eviction lawsuit April 23, 2020 despite doctor orders that she needed to be in quarantine until April 27, 2020. Despite the fact that she was hospitalized on April 1st for 24 hours and now needs supplemental oxygen at home, Allred Properties showed no mercy and demanded rent. According to Marsh’s counsel Jason Auer of Arkansas Legal Aid, they even violated their own lease which states that Marsh was entitled to 14 days notice. However Allred Properties attempted to override their own lease with Arkansas’ harsher terms. On May 4th, Marsh moved in with her family and hired a moving company which put both her family and the movers in danger of contracting Covid-19. “It’s very difficult to find someone to move you when you are quarantined with Covid-19, the movers had to take precautions to avoid contracting the virus.” However should renters who are ill with Covid-19 be evicted during a pandemic? Hopefully this is another question that can float around in the narrative about Arkansas the state’s lack of laws to protect renters.


Sources:

Arkansas Democrat Gazette: Experts fear spike in Arkansas evictions looming, article published July 4, 2020.

Arkansas Democrat Gazette: Ill with coronavirus, Springdale woman faced eviction; concerns raised for struggling tenants, article published May 11, 2020.

Arkansas Democrat Gazette: Little Rock director calls for eviction moratorium, urges action by state, article published July 7, 2020.

Arkansas Democrat Gazette: Renters have few rights under Arkansas law, article published May 7, 2017.

Arkansas Times: Arkansas renters face eviction threats during pandemic, article published May 12, 2020.

Human Rights Watch: Pay the Rent or Face Arrest, Abusive Impacts of Arkansas's Draconian Evictions Law, article published February 5, 2013.

KTVE- MyArklamiss: Is Arkansas the worst state in which to rent in the country?, article published June 13, 2018.


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