Arkansas's landlord tenant laws work well for honest landlords, too well for slumlords, and they don't work at all for honest tenants. Disputes between landlords and tenants are inevitable, and Arkansas needs laws that capture the worst players on both sides without abandoning good tenants or overburdening good landlords. The goal should be fixing the stark lack of legal balance that heavily favors landlords. Arkansas is the only state where not paying rent on time can land you in jail, and the only state where landlords are not required to uphold basic living standards of their properties.
There is little sympathy from Arkansas courts for a well-meaning tenant who is late on paying rent. Even reasonable situations like an honest misunderstanding with a landlord or a serious medical emergency are not considered in a criminal conviction. There is no distinction made between tenants acting in good faith and tenants who are avoiding payments in attempts to take advantage of landlords and live rent-free. If you are on the property and don't pay on time, you are subject to criminal eviction that can come with a $1,000 fine or up to 90 days in jail.
In other states, failure to pay rent is treated as a breach of contract and landlords have to go to civil court and pay for their own legal fees. In Arkansas, landlords can evict tenants at little cost because they are essentially being represented by the state. Prosecutors and city attorneys, and ultimately Arkansas taxpayers, end up footing the bill for evicting tenants. There are generally no other circumstances in Arkansas where someone can use the criminal justice system to go after another person for unpaid debts.
Arkansas Legal Aid Services works on behalf of some tenants, but by no means are able to represent all cases. If they can't get help from Legal Aid, the thousands of low-income Arkansans who face criminal evictions every year almost never have legal representation. Some circumstances even require tenants in Arkansas who want to plead not guilty to pay whatever amount the landlord claims they owe before being granted a day in court. That practice all but guarantees that a tenant with a genuine reason for not being able to pay is prevented from pleading not guilty. Those practices have come under scrutiny for violating constitutional rights to trial.
Higher income socioeconomic groups typically play by an entirely different set of rules. People with well-paying jobs are more likely to own their homes under a mortgage agreement with a bank. Being a few days late on a monthly mortgage payment is approached with considerably greater leniency than being late on rent, and there is generally no possibility of criminal conviction or jail time for defaulting on a mortgage.
Groups of realtors and landlords in Arkansas are, somewhat understandably, resistant to change in these laws. First, most of them are good people. The vast majority of well-intentioned landlords are able to work under Arkansas law to resolve disputes with tenants in a reasonable manner. Also, a bad tenant can be expensive. They don't want to give up advantages that help them deal with tenants who are truly destructive and unreasonable. If a tenant is wrongly withholding rent or destroying property, a criminal eviction is a much cheaper and faster way of getting rid of a bad apple. However, there is room for improvement in our laws that will continue to protect good landlords from abusive tenants and also improve protection of good tenants from slumlords.
A good first step would be implementing a "warranty of habitability." Arkansas, again, is the only state that does not have such a law. Definitions vary by state, but warranties of habitability generally allow tenants to demand things like doors that lock, functional plumbing and compliance with local codes. No reason for withholding rent is currently justifiable under Arkansas law. Tenants cannot withhold rent because a roof is caving in, because sewage is backed up in the yard, because of a rat infestation or any other reason.
Enforcing a warranty of habitability would give many low-income residents, who are most likely to live in dangerously unmaintained rental homes, a more reasonable chance at defending themselves against slumlords. Falling behind on expenses is a fact of life for many working poor families. Criminalization of minor bad behavior like falling behind on rent frequently targets lower-income citizens. Without more balanced laws, the most financially vulnerable families in Arkansas can end up being trapped in a cycle of fees and evictions.
Eleanor Wheeler is a senior policy analyst for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.