IT NEVER GETS OLD: The meme developed for unsuccessful efforts to pass a decent landlord-tenant bill in the Arkansas legislature. We still need one, particularly in the pandemic.

Here’s the monthly report on evictions in Arkansas from Lynn Foster, the UA Little Rock law professor who’s labored for years in the thankless work of attempting to improve Arkansas’s status as the worst state in the U.S. for rental tenants.

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Some key points:

Eviction filings in September were up 37 percent over August, which was up 40 percent over the month before. The total of 547 was 20 percent more than the same month a year ago.

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A greater percentage of tenants are filing answers to evictions, which is good news. And some, but not nearly enough, are filing the form required to qualify for an eviction moratorium under CDC pandemic guidelines.

Pulaski County led the eviction count with more than 200 in the month.

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Foster’s recommendation:

At the time of this writing, the CDC eviction moratorium has been in place for one month, but the Arkansas Supreme Court has not yet issued an order requiring pleadings to reflect the CDC moratorium, as it did for the CARES Act moratorium.

The Arkansas Supreme Court should require landlords to plead that they have not received a CDC declaration from their tenant. Tenants should receive a blank CDC
declaration form accompanying any notice to vacate or eviction complaint. The filing of a CDC declaration should be a bar to any pending eviction.

The moratorium applies to “covered” persons, defined as a tenant who:

• has “used best efforts” to obtain all available government assistance for rent; and
• either earns less than $99,000 in 2020, reported no 2019 income to IRS, or received a stimulus check; and
• cannot pay full rent due to loss of income, work hours, being laid off, or having significant medical expenses; and
• is “using best efforts” to pay as much rent as often as is required under the lease; and
• will be rendered homeless by eviction, or will have to live in close quarters in new housing.

The report is interesting and sad reading. It details the many ways, including the one-of-a-kind criminal statute, by which Arkansas landlords can boot tenants, sometimes in questionable ways. It records some of the cases found in court records.

Example:

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“Lost job from Covid-19 and had newborn baby. Paid what I could.” This tenant filed his answer within 5 days of being served, with a CDC declaration attached. The judge ordered a writ of possession several days before this writing, without stopping the eviction or giving the tenant a hearing. The judge stated this was because the tenant paid no deposit to the court. See below for a description of our unfair unlawful detainer statute. In addition, however, federal law requires that no writ of possession should have been issued here.

Foster offers several suggestions on improving circumstances  that could also help landlords. The moratorium, remember, is not a rent forgiveness program.

We now have a blanket moratorium until the end of the year, which disproportionately charges landlords at present. However, come January 1, it is imperative that some kind of plan be in place to allow tenants to pay their rent, because the moratorium is not rent forgiveness. Some states will give tenants several months after their moratoriums end to get caught up with back rent.

Arkansas could do this. Most states are prohibiting landlords from charging late fees. Taxpayer money should not go to pay late fees, which serve no purpose except to punish. Arkansas should prohibit late fees if tenants qualify for rent assistance.

We need a fair and comprehensive government response, with the state and federal responses dovetailing, so that no deserving tenant or landlord falls through the cracks. Both tenants and landlords deserve what is rightfully theirs. Tenants deprived of income through no fault of their own do not deserve being evicted and trying to find a new place in the middle of a pandemic that will still be killing people in January. We do not want to turn people onto the street during a pandemic. We can do better.

She also says the state should provide more meaningful rental assistance than it has done to date. The office of the courts should track evictions. The state should repeal the criminal eviction statute.

With the pandemic likely to last a good while, Foster said:

Good government consists of reality-based planning and execution. We deserve this at both the federal and state level.

Tenants need legal help. Legal Aid agencies can provide some help.