NO CHANGE: This Internet meme was developed during one of the past successful efforts by the real estate lobby to prevent a law requiring habitable rental dwellings. The lobby’s power continues in today’s pandemic crisis. Evictions continue.

Ginny Monk of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette did some important reporting Sunday on the continuation of eviction actions in Arkansas during a time when the coronavirus crisis has thrown tens of thousands out of work.

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I was interested because I’ve long followed Arkansas’s status as the worst for rental tenants in the country, thanks to the all-powerful real estate lobby (which includes several landlords in the Arkansas legislature).

I got in touch after the article appeared with one of Monk’s sources, Lynn Foster, the emeritus UA Little Rock law professor who’s done yeowoman work for years attempting to make landlord-tenant law fairer. A guarantee of habitability would be a good place to start, but it’s a non-starter for the real estate lobby.

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Gov. Asa Hutchinson has so far effectively sided with the real estate lobby during the pandemic crisis. He has resisted calls to order a stop to evictions, as he has put a stop to restaurant dining, haircuts, manicures, surgical abortion and gym workouts among assorted other business-crimping prohibitions. The well-being of landlords  is apparently too essential to share in the sacrifices (or perhaps he’s looking after their bankers). Monk’s article quoted a landlord as saying they’ll do their best to “work with” tenants. It quoted the governor as discouraging court action, but advising tenants in a jam to find a charity or legal aid to help. Just not him, he should have added.  The federal government has put a halt to evictions in government-subsidized rentals.

Good intentions or no, the D-G article said 300 eviction notices had been filed statewide since March 11, when the first COVID-19 case in Arkansas was reported.

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This, as Foster explained to me in a series of e-mails Sunday, does not necessarily mean 300 tenants were evicted. In Pulaski County, for example, the circuit judges — save Judge Tim Fox, who apparently had some constitutional objections to joining the emergency order — have declared they won’t issue orders for landlords to take possession of their rental units during the crisis. Judge Ralph Wilson of Osceola has done the same for his multi-county circuit.

But, Foster points out, if a tenant doesn’t respond to the filing of a “writ of possession” notice (and it’s confusing), the matter doesn’t have to go to a court for a hearing or final judgment. The county clerk can simply file the order on request.

Foster did some further searching and found that six writs of possession (or evictions) had been issued by clerks in April based on such circuit court filings — five in Washington County and one in Benton County. But there are separate means of seeking evictions, including in district courts, she noted, including the criminal eviction process that Arkansas alone retains as a weapon for landlords.

Foster dug further through records and compiled a spreadsheet of evictions for writs of possession or unlawful detainer proceedings in April (still not a record of all possible actions because district court actions aren’t available on the state Court Connect System) and found 93. These included cases pending from earlier. There’s no way from the on-line record to tell individual circumstances. She concluded that it’s too early to tell whether courts are issuing writs of possession for tenants unable to pay because of COVID-19 illness or loss of employment.

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I’ll go out on a limb. It is NOT too early to say that Gov. Asa Hutchinson could simplify matters by joining other governors (and mayors) who have issued orders halting evictions.

The governor’s priorities seem to be elsewhere. Or so I judge from the absence of a representative for rank-and-file workers and residential tenants or advocates for the working poor on his “Economic Recovery Task Force.” It’s led by a billionaire named Walton and stocked with corporate lobbyists who’ve led past fights to trim workers compensation, unemployment benefits and access to courts for corporate and medical damages. The governor didn’t need to include the real estate industry lobbyist. They’re covered.

UPDATE: Lynn Foster, before doing further record research this weekend wrote this article, updated from an earlier version I posted about her findings on evictions filings, the state of the law and some individual cases that illustrate the need for relief. It’s worth your time. It shows that legal proceedings don’t begin to cover the range of actions by landlords. Cases she found from talking to lawyers:

  • A young woman was threatened with self-help eviction (which is illegal in Arkansas but which nonetheless happens) after her hours were cut at her restaurant job over COVID-19. She was not able to pay her April rent. She had tried to apply for unemployment benefits, but could not use the website successfully. Her landlord would not agree to let her pay the rent out of her stimulus check. Instead, the landlord told the tenant that she was going to change the locks or self-help evict the tenant if she did not leave within the week. The tenant was able to obtain a legal aid lawyer and prevent the lockout, but the landlord still plans to pursue legal action instead of working with the tenant.
  • A woman with three young children was threatened with a self-help eviction after she lost herjob as a hairstylist over COVID-19. She got behind on rent. She has applied for  unemployment and expects some income in the future, so she offered to work out a payment plan with her landlord to get caught up. The landlord refused and told the tenant that they were going to change the locks if the tenant did not pay the full balance in 48 hours. The tenant was only able to prevent the illegal, self-help eviction because a legal aid attorney intervened.
  • A tenant lost her job and cannot find another due to the impacts of COVID-19. She is two months behind on rent. She applied for unemployment benefits and was approved, but the benefits have not arrived. She was recently served with an eviction lawsuit. She wants to stay in her home and catch up on rent but will not have the resources until her unemployment benefits arrive.

PS: Foster adds this explanation on the updated article linked above:

It includes Thursday and Friday numbers, writs of possession numbers, and also a link to a list of most of the Arkansas properties covered by the federal CARES Act. In other words, if your property is on this list, your landlord should not be able to file an eviction notice against you until July.