FAYETTEVILLE -- The rights renters have in Arkansas can be counted on one hand, even if it's missing a couple of fingers.
"There are pretty much three at the core," Samantha Higgins, assistant director for Off-Campus Student Services, told University of Arkansas students during a recent presentation. "Right to have sole possession of the property. That means when you sign a lease the landlord or owner is saying yes, I own this but you are going to occupy it. The second one is quiet enjoyment of the property and then not to be locked out by self-help methods. So, if you do get evicted -- you get behind on rent -- the day after rent is due the landlord can't change your locks, they can't remove your door, they can't do do anything like that. They have to go through the legal eviction process and that is your right as a renter."
Some basics for renters
• Arkansas is the only state in the country where landlords do not have to provide a habitable dwelling. Landlords are also not required to make repairs, unless it is stated in the lease agreement. Renters cannot withhold rent for any reason.
• Lease agreements can be long and filled with confusing legal jargon. Be sure to read a lease completely before signing. Make sure you will be able to stay at the residence for the duration of the lease — usually the only way to get out of a lease is active military duty.
• Most landlords collect a security deposit to cover damages outside of normal wear and tear for when you occupy the residence. If a landlord owns six or more properties, the security deposit cannot exceed two months’ rent. Renters are entitled to get their deposit back within 60 days of the lease ending, minus any amount subtracted for repairs. Renters must receive a list of the repairs performed and their costs.
• Tenants can be evicted for failing to pay rent, staying in the residence after the lease has ended or any other lease violations. Arkansas has both civil and criminal evictions. If you are behind on rent, you may be served a failure to vacate notice and must leave the property within 10 days or be served with a criminal charge.
Source: Legal Aid of Arkansas/UA Off-Campus Student Services
Other rights can be provided for in the lease, and they usually are, Higgins said.
"That's why it's very, very important to read your lease because at the end of the day, if it's not in there, this is all you're guaranteed and it's not a lot," she said. "Verbal leases and verbal agreements are binding in the state of Arkansas, but we always, always advocate for you to have a written lease and have anything that your landlord promises you in writing because it can turn into a he said, she said case and it usually doesn't end well. If it's not written in the lease, don't count on it happening."
State Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, has worked for six years to pass legislation giving renters more rights. None have gotten out of committee. Legislators did pass a new criminal eviction statute in the last session to replace one that was found to be unconstitutional.
"It's not necessarily that it's one of the worst laws, it's that we don't have any laws," Leding said. "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. We're also the only state in the country where you could be thrown in jail for failing to pay your rent. A tenant has practically no rights at all here in Arkansas."
Leding said about one in three Arkansas residents rent, some 960,000 people. Higgins said about 20,000 students live off campus and estimated 80 percent of those rent. The percentage of people renting in Northwest Arkansas was at 37 percent of all occupied housing units in 2015, that was up from 33 percent in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau data.
"I'm going to keep trying as long as I'm in the Legislature. The next opportunity won't be until the next session in January of 2019," Leding said.
"I do want to be clear, I think most landlords, 98 or 99 percent of all landlords, are good people who do right by their tenants and there are absolutely bad tenants who just tear up property, but I don't think that's justification for having the nation's worst laws."
Higgins said the big apartment complexes sprouting around Fayetteville are mostly owned by out-of-state interests that are used to operating above the minimum required in Arkansas and usually provide more amenities. The large complexes just fix anything that breaks because they have such a huge budget. Lindsey Management is the largest local owner with 10,000 units in Northwest Arkansas.
"Their leases are usually pretty good," Higgins said. "Most of them say we'll fix everything except replacing light bulbs. I mean you submit a maintenance request for anything, and they'll fix it."
It's usually landlords that own a few properties who tend to hold renters to a minimum, Higgins said.
"I've had issues with people that have tried to tell students that you owe $2,000 in damages, and the bill that they try to provide is like three years old. They just hope that you won't read the fine print," Higgins said. "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. Or the ones that have to buy you a new AC unit, that's a huge expense for them.
"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, the renter has violated the lease," Higgins said. "I know it's been kind of scary, there have been documentaries done on the state of Arkansas and how bad our rights are and our laws are in favor of the landlord but, honestly, in this area we don't have those kind of issues."
Jerry Allred, who has operated Allred Property Management for the past 30 years, said his company manages and maintains some 350 houses and 450 apartment units in Benton and Washington counties.
"Those are all fee managed, we charge the owner a fee to do everything," Allred said. "It's all over, from people that have 60 houses or units down to people that just have one. Most of our clients are out of state. For our owners, that rent is their mortgage payment most of the time, and when the tenant isn't paying, we don't get paid and the mortgage doesn't get paid."
Allred said while state laws may be few, landlords are required to follow a bevy of federal housing regulations.
He cited a couple of examples. In the last year, federal law changed to forbid discriminating against a person with a felony conviction on his record, he said. Another example is a Fayetteville ordinance prohibiting more than three unrelated people from living together.
"Well, that's good, but federal law says you might be violating marital status or age discrimination. If you say you don't want students, that could be interpreted as age discrimination," Allred said. "Even though Fayetteville has a law, I think it's a $100 fine and federal law is a $10,000 fine. So which one are you going to violate."
Allred said individuals have a harder time dealing with deadbeats than management companies.
"A lot of the individual owners, they don't have the opportunity to pull credit reports. So a lot of people that are getting evicted from other places, they look for that single family, that mom and pop," Allred said. "While we sympathize with their personal challenges, they still gotta pay their rent. Whereas, with an individual owner, they can play on their sympathy more than they can with us."
Spring is traditionally the apartment turnover season in Northwest Arkansas, particularly among university students who are signing new leases or changing addresses, according to industry insiders.
Meg Austin, a university student, rented from a family friend for six or seven months before moving into a apartment in a small complex on her own. Austin said she's had nothing but positive experiences as a renter in Fayetteville.
"I've heard horror stories of people trying to get people to do maintenance work and things like that, but I've been very lucky and very grateful for the good experiences that I have had," Austin said. "The one I have now is two bedroom, it has all the amenities, washer, dryer are included, which is very handy. I was renting a small house with a roommate before that and that was also very nice, very well put together and very well maintained."
Higgins said there are some basic facts of life for renters such as only people on the lease can occupy the apartment.
The landlord also has a right of entry to come in to inspect, to make repairs, to do improvements, to check on potential illegal activity or to show it to a potential buyer or someone who's going to move in after you move out, Higgins said. Most leases will say something like right to entry within reasonable hours and some leases say you'll get 24 hours notice that they're coming. But if it doesn't say in the lease they can literally barge in any time.
A landlord is supposed to guarantee a renter quiet enjoyment of the property, but that can depend on other residents in the building or complex, Higgins said. But, if neighbors are having parties and a landlord does nothing to stop it, that could be grounds for breaking a lease.
While the landlord doesn't have to keep the home clean and habitable for a renter, she has to keep it clean and in the state she found it in for the landlord, Higgins said.
"If you found it with half a wall missing, you can return it with half a wall missing, but you can't make it worse than how you found it," she said.
A renter can however be evicted if he does excessive damage to the apartment even if it's an accident, like a grease fire, and it burns down one of the walls, Higgins said.
The landlord does not have to make repairs if it's not listed in the lease, she said. If a landlord does make a repair, it has to be safe and correct.
A lot of apartment complexes won't clear snow and ice of parking lots, stairs and sidewalks because if they do nothing it's not their fault if somebody slips and falls, Higgins said. If they clear it and someone falls, it is the landlord's responsibility.
Larger student housing complexes that rent by the bedroom don't necessarily have security deposits, but conventional apartments, duplexes, town homes, regular single family homes still do, Higgins said. If a landlord owns or manages more than six properties he cannot charge a deposit of more than two months rent, and he has to give the deposit back within 60 days, minus an itemized list of what he charged the renter for. He can't just say he's keeping $200 for repairs.
If a renter doesn't get his security deposit back, he can sue for twice the amount of the deposit, plus fees and costs, Higgins said.
Arkansas is the only state that has a criminal eviction statute, according to Allred. When a tenant is occupying a property and refusing to pay rent, the tenant is committing a crime in Arkansas by stealing from the landlord. That's considered a civil matter in all other states. Arkansas also has a civil eviction law.
Allred said, "I think last year we only did seven total evictions where we had to go through all the court systems, but a lot of that is because we do so much screening on the front end."
Civil eviction is vastly different from criminal eviction. Civil eviction enables the landlord to begin the eviction due to any significant breach of the lease or rental agreement and allows the collection of back rent, attorney fees, damages to property and the pursuit of other civil remedies.
Criminal eviction allows only for the landlord to take his property on the contingency that a tenant is behind on rent. Civil eviction generally takes less time than criminal eviction.
Criminal eviction begins with a 10-day notice to vacate and an affidavit by the landlord that prosecutors use to issue a warrant of arrest for the tenant. After the warrant is served a court date is set, a hearing is held and the tenant enters a plea. The only defenses are the rent was paid or the tenant moved out. A guilty plea generally results in a judge ordering a tenant to vacate by a certain date. A tenant can plead not guilty, but they must deposit the total amount due to the court and continue to deposit money for each additional day the tenant occupies the property while the case is pending. A trial is held and if the tenant has no proof of payment, he loses. The charge is a misdemeanor. The tenant has 10 days to vacate and can be fined for each additional day of occupation or jailed for up to 90 days. If the tenant prevails, he gets the money he deposited with the court.
Civil eviction, also known as unlawful detainer, is the default method to reclaim possession of property if the tenant is violating the rental agreement. Civil eviction starts with a three-day notice to vacate. If the tenant doesn't vacate, the landlord files a lawsuit seeking an eviction order or writ of possession, plus a judgment for the amount owed. The tenant has five days to respond and explain why he shouldn't be evicted and a hearing is held. If the tenant fails to respond or is unsuccessful at persuading the judge, the landlord receives a writ of possession to be served by the sheriff to evict the tenant. Civil eviction allows the landlord to obtain a judgment against the tenant for damages caused by breach of the lease, court costs and attorney fees. It also allows the landlord to garnish wages or take other steps.
Allred said he typically doesn't pursue criminal eviction. A civil eviction can run $800 with lawyer fees.
"I never used it because I want a judgment and when you use that criminal eviction, you get 'em out, but you don't get any damages," he said.
NW News on 05/07/2017