A report being issued today by Human Rights Watch zeroes in on Arkansas, saying the state has some of the harshest tenant laws in the country. Meanwhile, many landlords in Arkansas say they need the statute in order to get non-paying tenants out of their property.
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A graying man in a black tie stands outside the Little Rock apartment complex where he lived until last September.
Steve: "I had been living there a little over eight and a half years."
“Steve” doesn’t want to give his full name because he and his wife were evicted from this apartment. They missed their rent payment, he says, after his wife’s heart surgery. Steve says when they tried to get caught up later, it was too late.
Steve: "It was kind of hard to leave, because when I came up with the money, I said 'Hey, Miss Kate, can I pay it now since I have the money?' No, you still have to go to court."
His landlord wasn’t taking him to civil court for eviction. She was having him charged with a crime. Steve was startled when the police knocked on his door. That’s when he found out he faced possible fines or jail time.
Steve: "You feel violated. You’re not a criminal. You know? I mean, why?"
Arkansas is the only state where it’s a crime to fail to pay rent and then not move out. Arkansas gives you ten days to vacate.
Chris Albin-Lackey of Human Rights Watch says the group’s study found that at least 1200 people were charged under the law last year.
Albin-Lackey: "Arkansas’s criminal evictions law is abusive on its face, and it’s actually even worse in the way that it’s applied."
Albin-Lackey says the law essentially makes the public prosecuting attorney into the landlord’s attorney.
And he’s not the only one who thinks Arkansas law is slanted in favor of landlords. Last year, a special state commission was charged with studying Arkansas tenant law.
Law professor Lynn Foster presented the commission’s report. It highlighted a few ways in which Arkansas, unfortunately, stands out.
Foster: "There’s no duty for a landlord to keep premises in safe, habitable conditions here in Arkansas, and every other state imposes such a duty on landlords."
The commission included landlords, housing lawyers, bankers, and realtors. The group recommended several changes to rental law, including a repeal of the criminal eviction law.
Foster: "This is kind of a modern-day form, almost, of debtor’s prison."
The report notes that many prosecutors and judges aren’t comfortable with the law as written, and in different parts of Arkansas they apply it in different ways – or not at all.
Howard Warren, lobbyist for the Landlord Association of Arkansas, wants a simpler law.
Warren: "If you give me a better one than the patchwork, that’s what I’ll push to use."
Warren is also a landlord himself.
Warren: "From the landlord’s perspective, this is a business. When a tenant does not pay, no matter the reason, the landlord still has carrying costs - mortgages, taxes and insurance - that we can’t get out of."
Landlords who support the current law say that suing to get someone evicted is too expensive, burdensome and slow. That’s why the commission also wants to streamline Arkansas’s civil evictions procedure to make it more useable.
Warren: "Honestly, 90% of evictions, people just won’t pay. I don’t care if it’s criminal or civil, I just need to get the property back so I can find another tenant."
Warren says the landlords’ lobby would, in theory, support new laws on these issues. But they want to see the specifics first.
Steven Giles, who headed the state commission, says most tenants don’t know how to defend themselves against the eviction charge, although some of them want to.
Giles: "If they have a reason, a hole in the roof or the plumbing doesn’t work or something, the procedure doesn’t allow the judge to ask, 'Why did you not pay your rent?' It’s just one question: 'Did you pay your rent or not?'"
As for "Steve" and his wife who were evicted, they scrambled to find a place to go. The house they rent now has problems with the heating and the stove, and they ‘re struggling to get the landlord to make repairs.