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OPINION | SHIRLEY WASHINGTON: HB1563 is crucial, overdue

by Shirley Washington Special to The Commercial | April 29, 2021 at 2:46 a.m.

Arkansas residents are not being protected. Arkansas is the only state in the nation that doesn't require minimum living standards for tenants. As a result, landlords are under no obligation to prevent hazardous conditions that can jeopardize the safety of their tenants. As a city where 47% of households are renters, this lack of protection is an ongoing threat to our residents. Arkansas House Bill 1563, if enacted, would change this.

It requires basic standards that contribute to a livable home, such as plumbing, heating, ventilation, hot and cold running water, working locks and electricity that is in good repair. It states that homes should be free of mold that can affect the health of occupants, and that lifesaving devices, such as smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors, should be present. The bill also protects tenants from being retaliated against, by their landlords, for reporting violations.

The bill also eliminates the criminal eviction statute. Arkansas, once again, is the only state where tenants can be criminalized for not paying rent. HB1563 would relegate evictions to a civil process.

Although provisions like those in HB1563 are regarded as the minimum among habitability standards, they would offer significant protections for Arkansas renters. They would reaffirm the American values that everyone should be treated with dignity and fairness. Yet the bill is facing steep opposition in the state legislature.

Opponents claim the bill would result in higher rent payments, as landlords seek to offset the costs of funding these standards. However, economic research has largely disputed this notion. Additionally, multiple states where habitability standards have been enacted have maintained low rental prices that are comparable to Arkansas. Even more, living in a safer, cleaner environment is likely to reduce various conditions that can result in higher expenses for tenants, such as health care.

Critics assert that tenants can simply move if they are not satisfied with their living arrangements. Yet this ignores the challenges that such a move can involve. It can require extended waiting, result in financial losses and alternative housing may not always be feasible. For many, the provisions outlined in this bill may be their best and only option.

There are also individuals who believe that police officers should be used to carry out evictions. However, not only can this place a burden on law enforcement agencies, it can result in people being arrested who do not deserve to be jailed. For example, if a single parent has been given 10 days to vacate a property, he or she can be arrested on the 11th day if unable to move out in time.

Granted, landlords should have the right to evict individuals who have failed to pay rent within a reasonable time period. However, criminal arrests should not be the solution. By relegating such evictions to a civil court, HB1563 offers a fairer process that is more conducive to disputes of this nature.

Lastly, some argue that HB1563 is too burdensome and opens the doorway to excessive regulations. However, HB1563 is among the most limited set of standards in the nation. It's also narrowly focused on ensuring the health and safety of renters, and creating a civil process for evictions. The merits of additional legislation can be debated in the future. But that shouldn't stop us from establishing basic standards now.

This law is long overdue. Similar measures have failed in the past, and the provisions outlined in HB1563 are in jeopardy of the same fate. Therefore, it's a crucial time for Arkansans to voice support for these standards. It's time to call our state legislators and leaders, and demand these basic protections for our neighbors. If not passed during this legislative session, this bill should be a priority in the next. It's a matter of safety, fairness and dignity. And those are things to which we are all entitled.

-- Shirley Washington is mayor of Pine Bluff.


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