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Arkansas eviction rates 'extremely high' after pandemic moratorium's end, renters' advocates say

by Paige Eichkorn | September 7, 2023 at 4:02 a.m.
Vernastine Hymes of North Little Rock describes her housing situation Wednesday at the Pulaski County Courthouse in Little Rock, where advocacy groups released a report on evictions since the start of the covid-19 pandemic. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

The covid-19 pandemic exacerbated conditions for laid-off employees, renters late on payments and families in fear of having nowhere to "shelter in place," according to a new report released Wednesday.

The Arkansas Community Institute joined forces with Arkansas Renter's United and Arkansas Community Organizations to conduct a survey analysis of renters across the state over the past two years on the fallout of the pandemic.

Their findings -- "No Shelter in Place: How Arkansas Eviction Laws Harmed Renters During the COVID 19 Pandemic" -- were released at the Pulaski County courthouse in Little Rock and the Washington County courthouse in Fayetteville on Wednesday.

In 2022, Consumer Affairs ranked Arkansas' laws as the worst when it came to aiding renters over landlords.

Staff and volunteers at Arkansas Community Organizations reached out to thousands of renters to inform them of the protections provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, and the federal moratorium on evictions.

In the first few months of the pandemic, evictions slowed but soon returned to pre-pandemic levels in September 2020.

That same year landlords filed an average of 696 evictions per month in the state, according to the report. In 2023, data from public records shows an average of 744 evictions per month.

"That's extremely high, extremely high," said Valencia White of Arkansas Community Organizations.

"I don't understand -- this is the information that was given, with the moratorium, most landlords weren't even going to let their tenants know that due to the pandemic, we won't evict you if you're behind on rent. ... So then all of a sudden when the moratorium was lifted they were like 'hey, you owe us money!'"

Inflation has caused rent to go up, leaving renters who have been evicted no way to meet the cost of living.

White said landlords do not care about the lives they put out on the streets.

Arkansas' three eviction laws are "some of the nation's fastest and least forgiving," said Neil Sealy, another organizer quoting from the report.

"In Garland County, there were people being jailed for failure to appear and failure to pay," he said. "So we're going to be doing more research on those but we think that needs to be abolished and taken off the books."

The civil procedure is "flawed" he explained, because tenants have only five days to appear for a summons or provide a written objection.

Arkansas is one of 19 states where a tenant must respond in writing to an unlawful detainer complaint. If the tenant does not file a written objection within five days, they can be evicted without a hearing.

[DOCUMENT: Read HUD report issued September 1st »]

Sealy said that tenants cannot read the legal jargon and assume that they have 30 days to respond and appear in court.

"Most tenants don't even contest the eviction, most tenants do not have legal council," he said. "What are we calling for? A summons in clear fifth-grade English that explains exactly that you only have five days. That also provides information about the right to counsel and about legal services."

Sealy said an overhaul of Arkansas' laws has to happen so tenants who are late on rent have at least 30 days to pay.

"You shouldn't have to file a written objection, you should automatically be given your right to be heard," he explained. "We think that the state needs to beget a whole dispute resolution process before an eviction actually happens.

"Why? Because once you get an eviction you're marked as someone who has had an eviction and you get charged not only what you owe, you can be charged the remainder of the lease, you can be charged late fees, attorney fees and court costs. So you're debt increases. What happens? It gets sent to a debt collector. What happens? It permanently harms your debt."

Not all district courts across the state provide proper records of all evictions on the Court Connect website. Sealy said all courts should be required to provide demographic information so "we know who's being harmed."

The courts that do report their eviction cases have shown that women and people of color are disproportionately impacted.

Joyce Jones, a resident at the Villas of Country Club in Pulaski County, said she is considering other living arrangements due to her complex raising cable and internet costs.

A year ago, she said she was paying $55 a month. Now, the complex has removed its cable service but raised the cost to $75 a month for "faster internet," she said.

Rent went up $100 a month last January and Jones is living on a fixed income from Social Security as a retiree.

"It's atrocious what they allow us to live in," she added.

The habitability requirement that Arkansas landlords must follow is the state's version of the Uniform Residential Landlord-Tenant Act.

"They have put a lot in the Legislature that is so watered down that it doesn't do anything," Jones said. "But they did [enact a requirement] to appease us and to say 'we did it finally.' When you fight, they say 'but you've got this,' and it doesn't feel good."

Neighbors and friends of hers are afraid to call code enforcement because they have seen others get evicted after voicing their concerns about living conditions.

"Even if they did show up, you get evicted as soon as they find out that you've called code enforcement," Jones said. "So then, instead of being in trouble with getting something fixed, now we're in trouble because we're out of a place to live. We are homeless."

Sarah Willard, a resident at Pine Forest Apartments in Maumelle, said she moved into an apartment that was 90 degrees because the wall air conditioner units weren't working.

Willard and her roommate ended up having to buy their own air conditioning units.

"My roommate has two kids and we were sweating," she said. "I took a cold shower one day but I got out and I was still hot. It made the kids sick."

Maintenance at the complex has not fixed the stove, so Willard can't cook many things for the four of them.

"We never know if our oven is turned all the way off," she said. "We have to watch it and make sure it's really shut off."

Willard said their leasing paperwork was filed four days earlier than she had moved in, so she was charged for time that they were not living there.

"Whoever answered at the office said it would be subtracted the next month, but it wasn't," she said. "We submit maintenance requests and they never do anything."

Sealy, the renters' advocate, said that long term, the only way to win is to have a statewide organization and that's what Arkansas Community Organizations is building.

"We're staying motivated, we can get little victories," he said. "Maybe it'll lead to a ballot issue."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of Neil Sealy, a member of the Arkansas Community Institute staff.

  photo  Renters

Print Headline: Advocates say state laws favor landlords over renters


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