Renters’ rights advocates with the Arkansas Community Institute gather outside the Pulaski County Courthouse on Sept. 6, 2023. The institute released a report Wednesday detailing the frequency of evictions in Arkansas during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)
Arkansas landlords filed an average of 696 civil eviction complaints per month in 2022, according to a study of “all publicly available [COVID-19] pandemic-related eviction cases” in state court records by the advocacy group Arkansas Community Institute.
The group released a report on the study Wednesday and called for large-scale changes to state renting laws. Arkansas Community Institute is a partner of Arkansas Community Organizations, which has repeatedly called attention to poor living conditions in low-income housing.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a nationwide moratorium on evictions from September 2020 to August 2021, but the ban simply prevented the removal of tenants from their dwellings, not the filings of eviction notices.
In May 2022, 2,855 evictions had been filed in state courts so far that year, 45% higher than evictions filed in 2021 over the same period, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.
The onset of the pandemic in March 2020 made it more difficult for Arkansas tenants to pay rent on time, especially if they were already low-income or spent more than 30% of their income on housing, according to the Arkansas Community Institute study.
Additionally, some Arkansas landlords did not tell tenants that there was a temporary ban on evictions, and many raised rent prices during the pandemic, rally co-organizer Valencia White said.
“All of a sudden when the moratorium was lifted, they were like, ‘Hey, you owe us money and we want it,’” she said. “Now … you’re facing eviction on top of your rent being raised, and you can’t win for losing.”
Arkansas’ most frequently used civil eviction statute is the unlawful detainer process, in which a landlord initially gives a tenant a three-day notice to vacate the property after failing to pay rent. The landlord can file the unlawful detainer claim if the tenant does not move in three days.
“Often, tenants report being confused by the large stack of papers they are served with,” the Arkansas Community Institute study states. “The top paper they are served with is often a summons, which tells the tenant they have thirty days to answer to the landlord’s lawsuit. It is not until page three of the packet that the tenant is notified they have five days to file an objection or be evicted.”
This confusion leads to tenants staying in their units longer than five days and facing further negative consequences, rally co-organizer Neil Sealy said.
Arkansas is one of 19 states in which tenants must file a written objection to the complaint against them if they want to contest the filing. State law gives tenants five days to respond or risk eviction without a court hearing.
Sealy said eviction documents should be written “in clear fifth-grade English” and provide tenants with information about their right to legal counsel.
“Even more so, we need an overhaul of our laws so that tenants have 30 days to cure any deficiency in rent,” Sealy said.
The state’s required minimum standards for rental housing mandate hot and cold running water, potable drinking water, electricity, a sanitary sewer system, a functioning roof, and a functioning heating and cooling system.
These requirements did not become law until 2021 and have been criticized by tenants’ rights advocates for not being strong enough, especially since the law does not explicitly protect tenants from retaliation by landlords.
Renters’ pandemic-related struggles
Arkansas received $173 million in April 2021 to distribute to tenants behind on rent due to the pandemic in 72 of the state’s 75 counties. The state’s slow distribution process frustrated renters’ advocates and drew national attention.
As of June 2021, the state had distributed less than 1% of the funds. By the end of August 2021, the state faced a backlog of 8,000 applications and had distributed $7.2 million, or 4% of the funds.
The U.S. Treasury Department took back $8.8 million of the remaining funds in March 2022 and distributed it among more populous states that had given out their shares of relief aid more expeditiously.
In April 2022, Arkansas rejected roughly $86 million in supplemental federal funds for rent relief. Then-Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the money wasn’t necessary since the state’s economy had bounced back in light of the pandemic.
Additionally, Arkansas is the only state with a criminal eviction statute.
All 75 Arkansas counties and all 49 other states treat eviction for failure to pay rent as a civil matter, but Arkansas law states that anyone behind on rent “shall at once forfeit all right to longer occupy” the rented space.
Cynthia and Terry Easley of Malvern challenged the law in September 2021 with a federal lawsuit against the Hot Spring County sheriff and prosecuting attorney.
The Easleys fell behind on rent in August 2020 after a broken water pipe left their apartment without running water and their landlord did not fix the pipe, according to the legal nonprofit Equal Justice Under Law, which represented the plaintiffs in the suit.
The Easleys had to buy water and rent a portable toilet, so they could no longer afford rent and later received a criminal eviction notice. They continued to live in the same apartment complex while the lawsuit was pending, but they later received a civil eviction notice from a new landlord when property ownership changed hands.
The couple complied with the civil eviction notice and eventually moved to another state. The federal lawsuit was dismissed in August 2022 because the defendants were no longer under threat of prosecution, which was the same reason two previous challenges against the criminal eviction statute were dismissed.
The Arkansas Community Institute study states that the Hot Spring County prosecutor no longer criminally prosecutes tenants for nonpayment of rent as a result of the Easleys’ lawsuit.
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