New Orleans Reading the press release from the Arkansas Legal Services Partnership, there was no doubt that a significant victory for tenants had finally been won. Arkansas had long been the only state that still criminalized evictions for tenants.In other words you could be evicted by the landlord filing criminal charges on you for not paying your rent and using the police and public apparatus to evict you. I had three lawyers, Stacy Fletcher and Dustin Duke from their Little Rock office and Jason Auer from Jonesboro on “Wade’s World” on KABF/FM 88.3 to talk about, and, as it turned out, tell us the “rest of the story.
Trying to remember the first name of Hobson Mahon who ran the Pulaski County Legal Aid in 1970, and agreed at the request of Jay Lipner, a VISTA lawyer at the time and Steve Herman, a Reginald Heber Smith fellow, to let me squat in the office for a month or so when I was first founding ACORN in Arkansas, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the local legal services.The article I found on Mahon covered the fact that in 1973 legal aid was fighting against this same criminal eviction statute. So, yes, this victory was sweet and hard won over many decades, but as it turned out it was a victory only in one circuit court’s jurisdiction for Pulaski and Perry County.With no appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court, they would have to continue to look for cases to challenge elsewhere throughout the state.In truth very few tenants go to jail for nonpayment, but it is a big stick wielded by the landlords and depending on how they strike with it one of the lawyers explained how a tenant could end up with a class misdemeanor serious enough drag on credit ratings and impact job applications.
So what does a tenant do when the landlord won’t make needed repairs? Stacy Fletcher explained that there was an eye in the needle a tenant might be able to crawl through to withhold rent by paying for the repair themselves but it was only good for one month, and the repair were often greater than that sum, and of course there were risks. The risks being the fact that the tenant could end up with a criminal eviction if they didn’t dot every “i” and cross every “t” correctly in
fix the problem.
Landlords can get away with all of tenant abuse in Arkansas because it is the only state in the United States that does NOT have an “implied warrant of habitability,” meaning that there is no assumption that the landlord is providing housing as a spoken or unspoken part of lease where it is decent enough for people to live. Yes, you understand this perfectly. A landlord can get away with collecting rent for a place with no heat, no utilities, no running water, and even no toilet. Unbelievable in the 21st Century in the United Sates. Arkansas essentially is OK running slums on the order of Korogochu in Nairobi or Dharavi in
Mumbai!Arkansas could still legally rent the managers of Biblical times. And, there’s no shame about it either. Stacy related one sad tale of a landlord in Pulaski with over 100 properties complaining that now he was going to have to get a lawyer or something to evict tenants rather than have the taxpayers do it for him.
A bill seems to have been submitted in the state legislature to finally allow Arkansas not to be the last state without a warrant of habitability. Republicans or Democrats or whatever, surely they can agree it’s past time to allow tenants to have some basic human rights even if they don’t have anything like tenant’s rights in the state. If not, we need to talk about all tenants declaring a rent jubilee until we can put an end to both the criminal evictions and legalized slum housing forever.