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More than 50 people -- landlords, tenants, legal experts, city officials, advocates and state legislators -- rallied at the state Capitol on Thursday to show their support for a house bill that would set minimum standards on rental housing in Arkansas.

Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, filed the bill Feb. 7. The legislation outlines 10 parts of a rental home that must be kept in working order. It includes locks, plumbing and electrical wiring as well as structural soundness for the roof, floors, ceilings and walls.

"At the end of the day, this is not a Republican or Democratic issue," Gazaway said. "This is a basic human-rights issue."

Gazaway said he thinks the bill will help balance rights between landlords and tenants.

Arkansas is the only state that doesn't have a law of this type, called an implied warranty of habitability law, and the state has drawn criticism for being the worst place in the country to rent.

Currently, landlords must keep their properties up to city code, but there isn't much legal recourse for people who live in rural areas or municipalities without housing standards.

There also isn't legal protection for renters who complain to code enforcement about the property. Gazaway's bill would provide that protection.

"Arkansas tenants have fewer rights than tenants in any other state," said Lynn Foster, a University of Arkansas at Little Rock professor.

About one-third of Arkansas residents are renters.

Foster served on a legislatively established commission that examined Arkansas' rental laws in 2011. The commission unanimously recommended a warranty of habitability statute in 2012.

Gazaway's bill was on the House Committee on Insurance and Commerce agenda Wednesday, but members didn't discuss or vote on it. Gazaway said that was because it was too fresh, adding that it may be debated in the committee next week.

Arkansas has a long history with warranty of habitability laws. At least six attempts to pass such a law have failed since 2005. Only one has made it to a full vote.

Dr. Carrie Brown, a Little Rock pediatrician, said she's seen adverse health affects on the kids she treats because of where they live. A 2017 study led by Arkansas Community Organizations, a group that advocates for low-income people, linked respiratory problems in particular to bad housing.

Teresa Beck, the former chairman of the Jonesboro Property Maintenance Committee, a group that reviewed other cities' codes and wrote one for Jonesboro described what happened when some residents tried to get residential code passed in the northeast Arkansas city.

The code narrowly passed in the City Council, but it was later repealed.

Beck said the repeal effort began after "dark money" groups and out-of-state landlords who were taking advantage of Arkansas' lax laws pushed for its rollback. So now she's advocating at the state level.

"It's really, really simple," Beck said. "We need to provide livable housing."

Jenifer Hamel, a Little Rock resident who lived in an apartment she says was subpar, spoke at Thursday's event about her experiences.

Hamel moved into her Little Rock apartment in December 2017 and moved out in February because she said the landlord wouldn't fix problems -- squirrels nesting in the walls, a porch that was slowly collapsing beneath her and electricity that often didn't work.

She said it didn't occur to her to ask about safety in the apartment because her mother had always been a good landlord to her tenants, and after being a renter for years, Hamel assumed safety was implied.

Hamel came out to support the bill "so that no else has to ask, 'Is this apartment safe?'" she said.

"Because that's inhumane."

Metro on 02/15/2019

Print Headline: Rental housing bill gets support

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