A few weeks ago, we mentioned a report on Arkansas landlord-tenant law reform, commissioned during the last legislative session. Today UALR’s Bowen School of Law held a packed symposium to discuss these reforms and related issues. Those in attendance were mostly lawyers, landlords and realtors — 250 total, with 50 people watching from a screening room in Fayetteville.

Lynn Foster, a professor at Bowen and co-chair of the Landlord Tenant Commission, discussed the report’s 15 recommendations. The short of it is that Arkansas is the only state without a warranty of habitability, which means there’s no minimum standard of safety and sanitation to which property owners must adhere. Since Arkansas is one of ten states that doesn’t prohibit retaliatory eviction, there’s nothing to protect a tenant who angers a landlord by calling code enforcement.

Arkansas is the only state that considers failure to pay rent a crime, and there’s no quick, affordable alternative to the criminal eviction process, which is one reason landlords use it. Through criminalizing tenants, landlords substitute private attorneys for county prosecutors at the expenses of taxpayers. Few judges follow the law exactly — usually because they consider it too draconian, according to one speaker, Chris Albin-Lackey, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch. What this means is that neither the prosecutor nor the defendant knows what to expect in court. Some tenants are arrested, thrown in jail, forced to make bail, sentenced to fines and probation, while others are summoned to court, where a judge simply gives them a “get out” deadline.

“This law is wide open for abuse and open to be used in ways it was never intended,” said Albin-Lackey. He mentioned a case where a tenant was given three days to vacate, even though the law calls for 10. The tenant was arrested on the third day, and the landlord moved his possessions toa barn, where they were ruined, and even sold his pet parrot.

Amy Johnson, the executive director of Arkansas Access to Justice, is working with Foster and others to have a bill drafted for the current legislative session. Thus far, she said, a few legislators have shown interest in sponsoring the bill — no Republicans, yet, though. “The legislature, even under Democrats, was pro-business and had small-government sentiments,” said Johnson. “The support of landlords and the real estate industry is critical for reform.” Rep. Warwick Sabin (D-Little Rock) and Rep. Mary Broadaway (D-Paragould) were the only legislators present in the audience.

Other talking points: Dr. Patrick Casey, a pediatrician and researcher with Arkansas Children’s Hospital, said that in 2011, Children’s Hospital surveyed all parents visiting the emergency room with their kids. Twenty-seven percent of these parents reported housing insecurity. And a national study found that children who move more than once annually are 50 percent more likely to be in poor health and 70 percent more likely to have behavioral problems.

Nate Willis II, a Ph.D. candidate at UAMS College of Public Health, examined affidavits, in Pulaski County and discovered that most criminal evictions in the district were filed against black women. He also found, using census date, that 6,007 rented units, about 14,597 tenants, in Arkansas don’t have adequate plumbing or kitchens.