Despite a federal agency's ban on many evictions that started Sept. 4, Arkansas landlords are filing rising numbers of lawsuits to remove tenants from their homes.
As of Friday, 476 unlawful detainer lawsuits against renters have been filed this month, according to online records analyzed by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. For all of August, state courts recorded 371. In July, 329.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued the eviction moratorium, which expires at the end of the year, in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. It applies to evictions for nonpayment of rent for people who meet all the following requirements:
• Have "used best efforts" to obtain government assistance for rent or housing.
• Make less than $99,000 a year, were not required to report 2019 income to the government or received a stimulus check under the CARES Act.
• Are unable to pay the full rent or housing payment because of a loss of income, loss of work or wages, or extraordinary out-of-pocket medical expenses.
• Are making best efforts to make timely partial payments.
• If evicted would probably be homeless or forced into a congregate-living setting.
"We're seeing more evictions now than we were before," said Jason Auer, the housing work group leader and fair housing project director with Legal Aid of Arkansas. "... I just think as the pandemic has worn on, that people's patience is running out for the situation and they are less likely to work with tenants maybe than they were a few months ago."
About one-third of Arkansans are renters, according to the U.S. census.
Legal Aid of Arkansas is a nonprofit headquartered in Jonesboro that provides legal assistance to people with low incomes.
Unlawful detainer is the most commonly used statute for evictions in Arkansas. Filings for this type of eviction have increased every month since the pandemic began.
Still, the numbers had been down compared with years past. That changed this month, the newspaper's analysis found.
In 2019, there were 393 unlawful detainer cases filed in Arkansas courts from Sept. 1 to Sept. 25. That's 83 fewer than the same period this year, court records show.
The newspaper's analysis didn't include other statutes and methods by which evictions occur in Arkansas.
Many evictions, referred to as "self-help" evictions, occur outside the courts. Self-help evictions include instances in which landlords lock tenants out of their apartments or shut off water or electricity. Often, landlords simply tape a notice to vacate on a tenant's door.
Self-help evictions are the type Neil Sealy, an organizer with Arkansas Renters United, said he sees most often. These couldn't be included in the newspaper's data review because there's no official record. The Natural State also has a criminal eviction statute.
While the federal moratorium has stopped many evictions, advocates and housing attorneys said too many renters either don't know about the federal order or hold misconceptions about how it works.
"A lot of people have gotten notices that they will be evicted, and a frighteningly large number of tenants have no idea about the CDC order," Sealy said.
Sealy's group as well as the Center for Arkansas Legal Services and Legal Aid of Arkansas are publicizing information about the order through methods such as social media and flyers.
For the federal ban on evictions to apply, tenants must submit a declaration stating they meet all five qualifiers. A misconception that the order automatically applies is one Auer said his group sees often.
Kendall Lewellan, managing attorney at the Center for Arkansas Legal Services, said she's also seen cases in which people submitted the declaration, but didn't sign. The center is a nonprofit, similar to Legal Aid of Arkansas, headquartered in Little Rock.
"They're using the declarations but they're not signing them, which would make them not really a declaration at all," Lewellan said. "Not signing it takes away its effectiveness. In some cases, they're not serving their landlords with it."
Blank copies of declaration forms can be accessed on the CDC's website or on the Center for Arkansas Legal Services' website.
Lewellan added that in the cases she's worked, once tenants serve their landlords with the declaration, that's generally the end of the matter.
She suspects that's because violating the CDC's order carries criminal penalties including jail time and fines, which increase if someone dies because of an eviction.
That wasn't Joy Burton's experience at her apartment in southwest Little Rock. Though her landlord hasn't moved to evict her, Burton gave her property manager two signed declarations -- one for herself and one for her 3-year-old, just in case.
The manager said, "There you go bringing those fraudulent letters here," Burton said of the experience.
Burton, 39, hadn't received an eviction notice on her door as of last week. This was her first month to miss rent since her work hours were cut in April. She works two jobs to support herself and her son, who is disabled. But she's had to cut hours even more since her son's school stopped meeting in person. It's tough to find anyone to watch him because of his special needs.
Since she brought information about the CDC's moratorium to her neighbors and turned in her own declarations, her apartment manager hasn't spoken to her.
"I thought maybe that people would stick together and work things out and try to work together," she said.
Burton brought the forms in early because she knew she wasn't going to be able to make rent, a strategy Lewellan said is often helpful so tenants and landlords can work out a payment plan.
The federal order doesn't put a freeze on rent or late payments. Advocates say people could build up mountains of rental debt over the next few months.
Sealy said for many people he works with, landlords have rejected their signed declarations, saying they're "bogus," "worthless," not the right form or that they have to be notarized. Sealy disputes those arguments, and legal experts say submitting the signed declaration is enough.
As for Burton, she's looking for a new place to stay. She's found a couple cheaper than her current apartment, places with a spot for her son to play. He's home all the time now because of covid-19 quarantines and other issues.
It seems to her that it's time to move on.
"I don't need to be here," she said.