Rent laws due for change

In 2011 a special panel was created to examine Arkansas’ landlord-tenant laws. This Non-Legislative Commission on the Study of Landlord-Tenant Laws just released the results of its nine-month study. The commissioners conclude that existing landlord-tenant laws in Arkansas are “significantly out of balance” with national standards and proposed 15 major reforms.

Among the more notable observations are that some of the existing laws are self-contradicting;” that no other state in the nation has a criminal eviction statute like Arkansas; and there are no laws requiring a warranty of habitability.

Imbalances with other prevalent standards can be seen in the area of security deposits, as in “Arkansas’s security deposit statute is in line with that of other states. However, the length of time landlords may keep the security deposit before returning it — sixty days — is unusually long.”

Perhaps the most egregious omission in Arkansas laws relating to this issue is the absence of core protections afforded by the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act. The URLTA was created by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws (NCCUSL) in 1972; and has been adopted or largely adopted by most other states.

In the report, Commissioner Marshall Prettyman, an attorney, notes that not only were all pro-tenant provisions stripped out of the Arkansas “version” URLTA, but additional pro-landlord provisions relating to eviction were added.

A prime example of this is found under the section, “landlord remedies,” in Ark. Code Ann. § 18- 17-701(c)(1). This section provides that “the landlord may recover actual damages and obtain injunctive relief, judgments, or evictions in circuit court or district court (without posting bond for any noncompliance by the tenant with the rental agreement).” As the report details, the parenthetical section is not part of the URLTA. It was added to the Arkansas bill, and is contrary to both the current unlawful detainer statute and Arkansas court rules.

In total, the commission recommends 15 significant legislative reforms that are necessary to bring Arkansas law into alignment with other states; and to ensure that tenants are not exploited.

As reports such as these invariably do, this one will likely elicit a loud rebuke from those landlords who’ve benefited from systematized inequity and injustice that the state laws allow to exist. Sadly, there are far too many available rental units in our city now that do not meet the most basic dictates of safety or habitability. Decades with little oversight have transformed what might otherwise be regarded as unjust or inhumane practices into just one more dismal local norm.

Because local lawmakers have been resistant to enact meaningful citywide legislation, new strictures — such as what this commission now recommends — are now regrettably necessary. This necessity stems from the failure of some landlords to embrace a simple standard: When looking at the least of their holdings, would they willingly permit their own family to live there?

We are at an important turning point in the history of our community. Either we enact and enforce substantive change or we resolve to endure further population loss and decline. Knowing that our local epidemic of homicides is fueled by drug crime; and knowing that the most violent drug crime typically anchors to rental housing, we either interdict the undesired behavior through compulsion or continue as we have — by sitting back and hoping something magical happens to change things.

We are fortunate in that the vast majority of our local landlords are responsible and empathetic. We are equally fortunate that the vast majority of local tenants are likewise responsible, stable and law abiding. Unfortunately, there are just enough bad actors from both constituencies to have a profoundly destructive impact on our community.

Reforms such as those proposed by this commission will put in place strictures to encourage better property maintenance and responsiveness. Because of that additional investment, property managers will hopefully be motivated to better screen potential tenants. Through more effective screening, incorrigible tenants will eventually go somewhere else.

This may not be easy. It may not be popular; and it probably won’t be cheap. Then again, watching your town die amid drug-fueled violence isn’t exactly a bargain, either.