Ill with coronavirus, Springdale woman faced eviction; concerns raised for struggling tenants

This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes covid-19.
This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes covid-19.

Still recovering from covid-19 and barely able to crawl out of bed, 45-year-old Tracee Marsh was served a civil eviction lawsuit April 23 for nonpayment of rent on her Springdale apartment.

Her doctor had said she needed to be quarantined until at least April 27.

Marsh, who was diagnosed with the coronavirus April 1, texted the landlord repeatedly to ask for more time to make the April rent payment of $1,395 for the house she'd moved into in August, according to filings in Washington County Circuit Court.

She'd been hospitalized for 24 hours on April 1 and afterward required at-home supplemental oxygen, court filings show.

With the breathing treatments, Marsh wasn't able to rest for more than a week, she said. "COVID-19 substantially impacted Ms. Marsh's breathing and depleted the energy she needed" to complete minor tasks, Marsh's court-filed response to the eviction says.

She told her landlord at Allred Properties Inc., a Fayetteville-based company, that she was sick and said she needed to go to the bank to get the money. Her monthly disability payments require her to physically go to the bank to transfer funds.

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Marsh wanted to wait to move out until her quarantine was over, and she struggled to find anyone willing to help her move, she told her landlord in text messages referenced in court filings and provided to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

"I want out of here just as bad as you want me out!!! BUT I'm still sick and weak without anywhere to move...yet, but I'm working on that the best I can based on how I feel since I DO have the covid virus and I'm trying to get some help to get my stuff moved," Marsh texted her landlord.

Matt Fryar, the attorney who represented Allred Properties against Marsh, said in a statement that the company complied with "all applicable laws and acted fairly while balancing the interests of both its tenant and its property owner."

The company first gave her an eviction notice on April 13, which did not go through the court system. The notice told her to leave in three days.

In the court filing, Allred Properties said Marsh owed $1,776.65 in April rent, late fees and administrative fees.

In response, Marsh's attorney wrote that the lease specified Marsh was entitled to 14 days' notice to leave the property. He said the filing was a violation of the Fair Housing Act because Allred Properties failed to provide a reasonable accommodation for Marsh's condition.

"It's just awful. I didn't think I'd see anything like this," said Marsh's attorney, Jason Auer of Arkansas Legal Aid.

The unlawful detainer suit filed against Marsh was one of at least 100 filed across the state in April for nonpayment of rent. April was the first full month of mandated closures and social distancing measures designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in Arkansas.

The number of unlawful detainer eviction suits comes from an analysis by Lynn Foster, a retired University of Arkansas at Little Rock professor at the William H. Bowen School of Law who specializes in housing issues.

The number isn't complete, Foster's report notes. It doesn't include evictions outside the court system -- methods such as handing a notice to a tenant.

It also doesn't include court jurisdictions that don't file cases online with the state's Administrative Office of the Courts, which operates a central database of court records called Court Connect.

Foster's report also notes three additional evictions were filed as "failure to vacate," Arkansas' criminal eviction law. These were in Hot Springs and Waldron.

Renters-rights advocates and housing experts in Arkansas and nationally have been calling for eviction moratoriums during the coronavirus pandemic as the unemployment rate climbed to 14.7% in April.

They've also expressed concern about situations similar to Marsh's in which someone is sick or caring for a sick relative and gets evicted, exposing the public to the virus.

Arkansas Renters United has organized two protests since the virus was discovered in Arkansas and sent a letter to the governor's office asking for an eviction moratorium and rent freeze.

Dozens of states have banned evictions either through the courts or through executive order.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson has stopped short of such a ban, suggesting that landlords work with tenants and that those who can't make rent because of the coronavirus reach out to nonprofits for help.

Auer said he is getting numerous requests for help with coronavirus-related evictions, although Marsh's was the first he'd seen of someone getting evicted while still sick.

"There's a chance we could start seeing evictions pick up in May, June, July just as apartment managers get more and more frustrated with the situation and tenants run out of money even more," Auer said.

On Thursday, Marsh said in an interview that she had a fever again and could barely speak.

She's living with her family, after her mother hired a company to help her move on May 4. She has service animals because of her progressive multiple sclerosis, lupus, fibromyalgia, and arthritis. These medical conditions were known to her landlord before she moved in, she said in a text message.

"It's very difficult to find someone to move you when you are quarantined with Covid 19," Marsh said in a text. The movers had to take precautions to avoid contracting the virus.

Marsh is still coughing and using breathing equipment, and she thinks the stress from the move slowed her recovery, she said in a message to a reporter.

The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act has banned evictions for certain federally backed housing. The Arkansas Supreme Court late last month issued an order saying that a landlord filing nonpayment-of-rent evictions must affirmatively state that the property is not covered by the CARES Act. The court's order is effective up to July 25.

"Is it going to get worse in the coming months? I really don't know," Auer said. "It certainly could. I worry about when some of these protections start to go away."

A Section on 05/11/2020

CORRECTION: Lynn Foster retired from teaching at the William H. Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. A previous version of this story misidentified the school.

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