The legislature has no interest in improving the country’s worst landlord tenant law (it has recently voted to preserve the country’s only criminal eviction process) but renters seem likely to get a bit of help from Circuit Judge Alice Gray of Little Rock.
She said in court yesterday that she was prepared to find unconstitutional a portion of Little Rock’s fire code because it allows tenants to be removed from their residences without due process. The city has said it will appeal. It argues that emergency conditions require removal of tenants for their safety. A KATV report on a court hearing yesterday provides more information
The case arises from a closure order for the Alexander apartments in 2015. Arkansas Community Organizations and a UALR Law School clinic have been working in behalf of tenants since then.
Neil Sealy, an organizer for ACO, commented to me today:
A ruling against the city’s fire code and rental inspection policies is huge. Over the years we have often had to run interference between the city and tenants in a condemnation situation. My first encounter with the city’s policy was around 1990 at apts owned by Dan Baker that later were developed into the Mahlon Martin Apartments. The city condemned the two complexes owned by Baker on Main Street. Residents were forced out and literally hanging out on Main Street asking for help. We encountered another crisis situation a few years later when a member was called at work and told she would have to move that day from a complex in southwest Little Rock. In 2005 we helped tenants at a trailer park in west Little Rock when their gas was cut off because the owner had not maintained the gas lines. Because of major media coverage and good organizing, we were able to stop the city from evicting tenants and eventually got the situation resolved in favor of the tenants.
So her ruling will go a long way in giving renters a few more rights. We would love to see a strong rental inspection program — there hasn’t been one to date — but code enforcement should not make people homeless. Rental inspection should be used to prevent bad situations from occurring.
As Sealy indicated, preserving a residence for tenants is important, but so are decently maintained residents. The case at issue includes an intervention by two tenants arguing for an implied warranty of habitability, something not provided by state law and not likely to be provided if legislative action so far is an indicator. That issue will be decided later in this case.