Crystal Alexander-Berry (center) and Neil Sealy (right) of the tenants’ rights advocacy group Arkansas Renters United share anecdotes about poor living conditions and suggestions for housing policy changes with the Little Rock Board of Directors on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)
Several members of the Little Rock Board of Directors advocated for stronger regulations and monitoring of rental housing on Tuesday during a discussion with renters’ advocates and city housing officials.
Little Rock has multiple apartment complexes with histories of poor living conditions, such as mold, exposed electrical wiring, nonworking smoke detectors and a lack of hot water. Further, the tenants that live at these properties are often low-income.
Residents of Auxora Arms, Westbridge Apartments and the Villas on 65th approached the city directors in July to share their experiences and ask for help.
The board and Mayor Frank Scott Jr. spent months scheduling and rescheduling a public discussion on renters’ rights, the Arkansas Times reported, before finally having it during Tuesday’s agenda-setting meeting.
Crystal Alexander-Berry, an organizer with Arkansas Renters United, said her apartment flooded and mold repeatedly made her and her children sick when they lived at Auxora Arms.
“The management didn’t help us at all,” she said. “They didn’t help us relocate… We had to relocate because the problem never got taken care of.”
Neil Sealy, another Arkansas Renters United organizer, said the city should direct more money to code enforcement and hire more code inspectors. There are currently five inspectors.
The city has 50,000 registered rental units, some of which are not the city’s responsibility to inspect because they are federally subsidized and the local public housing authority inspects them, said Brian Contino, the city’s assistant director of housing and neighborhood programs.
The code enforcement division aims to inspect 20% of all registered units under its jurisdiction every year, and so far this year, the city has inspected 2,210 units, Contino said.
At-large Director Joan Adcock is the city’s longest-serving director, first elected in 1992, and said she remembers when the city created the code enforcement division. Little Rock’s code of ordinances requires systematic inspection of rental units, but Adcock said she believes the city is falling short of this rule.
“If we had a true systematic [inspection process], there would not be a Big Country,” Adcock said, referring to Big Country Chateau, a 151-unit complex with years of documented code violations and a consumer protection lawsuit against it.
Ward 1 Director Virgil Miller and at-large Director Antwan Phillips agreed with Adcock that the city needs more code inspectors.
The housing department has continued to have only five code inspectors despite increases in both the population and the amount of housing in the city, Housing Director Kevin Howard said. He added that code inspections require help from city employees in other departments, and Contino said inspections can take up to three hours to complete.
The housing department plans to buy and implement software by the end of November that will speed up the process of creating inspection reports, allowing the city to inspect an entire housing complex in one day, Contino said.
Suggestions for change
In addition to bolstering the code enforcement division’s resources, Sealy said the city should advocate for state-level housing policy changes.
For example, the state should repeal its criminal eviction statute, the only law of its kind in the nation, Sealy said. All 75 Arkansas counties and all 49 other states treat eviction for failure to pay rent as a civil matter, but Arkansas law allows tenants to be charged with a misdemeanor and fined up to $25 per day if they fall behind on rent and don’t leave the property within 10 days of notice from the landlord.
The law has been unsuccessfully challenged in federal court multiple times, most recently in 2021. That case was dismissed after the plaintiffs moved from Malvern to another state in 2022.
Additionally, Sealy said, the state should bolster its 2021 law requiring minimum livability standards in rental housing. Those standards include available electricity, hot and cold running water, functional plumbing and heating and cooling systems.
Renters’ advocates have said the law is too weak because it does not prevent landlords from retaliating against tenants if they complain about poor living conditions. Sealy and Howard both said this is why many tenants do not come forward.
Sealy also said the city should help tenants relocate from units with life safety risks to safe and affordable places. Howard and other city officials have been working to relocate Big Country Chateau tenants over the past several months.
Another potential solution would be for the city to build affordable housing on publicly owned ground within a land trust, keeping the land out of the housing market even though the buildings would be privately owned, Sealy said.
Adcock said she is aware of a space in Ward 6, the west central portion of the city, where the land could be kept public and low-income housing could be built.
Phillips suggested that the city create a “tenants’ bill of rights” so renters know “what they’re entitled to and what they have access to” in their housing situations, and at-large Director Dean Kumpuris suggested a rating system for rental housing units citywide.
“You’re telling renters where they should be looking [for quality housing], but you’re also putting pressure on apartment owners who are not doing well… It’s a way of saying to them, ‘If you don’t boost your rating, you’re going to be in trouble,’” Kumpuris said.
Ward 2 Director Ken Richardson asked Sealy if housing complexes with poor living conditions tend to have out-of-state owners with “no connection” to Arkansas. Sealy said this is true, citing the New Jersey owner of Big Country Chateau and the Michigan owner of Auxora Arms.
Richardson said city officials should interact directly with low-income tenants as Sealy and other advocates do. He also said that Little Rock officials’ frequent emphasis on improving public safety should include housing policy changes, especially in underserved areas, instead of simply directing more resources to the police department.
“Without any kind of dedicated effort or strongly dedicated commitment, we could be having this conversation five years from now in a reactionary mode, as I see we’re doing right now,” Richardson said.
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