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FOR THE BILL: Ben Hammond speaks up for the Safe Housing bill on behalf of the AR Professional Firefighters Association.

The years-long push to create a minimum standard of habitability for Arkansas renters continued Wednesday, as Rep. Jimmy Gazaway (R-Paragould) presented House Bill 1563. This “Safe Housing Bill” would force landlords to make sure the properties they rent out are safe and livable. The House Insurance and Commerce Committee heard testimony for and against the bill, but they ran short on time. They will listen to more testimony and vote on HB 1563 at a later meeting.

Arkansas is the only state that lacks a minimum habitability law. That means that landlords here aren’t legally required to supply functioning plumbing, pest control, fire alarms and other basics that protect the health and safety of tenants.

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Just as in years past, landlords, some of them members of the Arkansas legislature (Shouldn’t they recuse here?), came out to oppose establishing minimum habitability standards they said would increase their costs.

“Its going to cause rent to go up on a lot of people,” said Rep. Robin Lundstrum (R-Springdale), herself a landlord. A member of the House Insurance and Commerce Committee, Lundstrum dominated much of Tuesday’s meeting to share her own landlord’s perspective. Tenants are often dirty and irresponsible, making it difficult for landlords to provide clean and safe living spaces, she said. She inspects her rental properties every January because tenants often take batteries out of smoke detectors to use in their children’s new Christmas toys, Lundstrum said. And keeping rental properties vermin-free is impossible without help from tenants. “I hate roaches,” Lundstrum said, but “they only come when they’re invited.”

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Other landlords from around the state came to the Capitol Wednesday to speak against HB 1563. Some said they agreed with parts of the bill, but were angry that they weren’t asked to help craft it.

Dan Pasmore, president of the Northeast Arkansas Landlord Association, said it’s bad timing to consider a bill that will increase costs for the property owners. The pandemic economy already cut into their revenue because so many tenants aren’t able to pay their regular rent, he said. This would be an extra burden on landlords, he said.

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Darrel Cook of Jonesboro drop-kicked political correctness out the window during his testimony. If the bill passes and he is required to provide pest control for his properties, he said he will boost his rents by $75 to $100 a month. Rep. Cindy Crawford (R-Fort Smith), herself a landlord, questioned that rate boost, saying she pays only about $86 per quarter for her own house and her rental house.

Rates are higher in Jonesboro, Cook said. “When you have tenants who leave tuna fish laying around, steaks laying around, it’s hard to get rid of roaches.” Cook also said he sometimes deliberately skips needed repairs to run off undesirable tenants. “There are tenants who cause so many problems that we don’t want to fix their house because we want them to move,” he said.

But an equal number of people, including tenants, a firefigher, a pediatrician and one grieving mother, showed up to advocate for the Safe Housing bill’s passage.

Abigail Vance, a student at the University of Arkansas and a renter, said she and her roommates live in a gas-heated property that did not come equipped with a carbon monoxide detector. They bought one, but it was a financial hardship for students on scholarships, she said. Vance drove to Little Rock from Fayetteville with other student renters to make a show of support for the bill. “We think it’s necessary for our own safety,” she said.

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Ben Hammond spoke up for the bill on behalf of the Arkansas Professional Firefighters Association. Firefighters have to deal firsthand with the catastrophes that ensue when apartments aren’t equipped with fire detectors. “Rep. Lundstrum brought up a good point that any landlord worth their salt is already paying attention to these things. I agree, and I wish everybody felt that way.”

But people can’t always be counted on to do the right thing, and this bill will encourage landlords to step up for their tenants’ safety and well-being, he said. Hammond pointed out all the safety features in the room where he was testifying before lawmakers: marked exits, sprinklers, fire alarms. “Those are not there because we were told we could put them in on our own. They’re there because someone decided they should be there for our safety.”

This bill is “extremely important and good for kids,” said Dr. Gary Wheeler, president of the Arkansas Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Arkansas ranks 49th in infant health. Health outcomes are determined overwhelmingly by the environment, and two-thirds of low-income children in Arkansas live in rental properties. Those children lack the experience and judgement to be able to avoid things like exposed wiring, and because of their size, they’re more vulnerable to lead and other toxins.  Roach infestations exacerbate asthma attacks. “They don’t even wake up when they’re bitten by rodents or bats,”  he said. Wheeler said he has seen children suffer from all of these dangers they encountered in their own homes.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of disagreement to move forward with habitability. Please do it,” Wheeler said. “We’ve been behind for too long. We need to succeed.”

A mother whose son died three weeks ago asked lawmakers to pass the bill. He was a state employee, a humanitarian, and only 34 years old when he died of carbon monoxide poisoning while living in a rental property. The bill before lawmakers would require fire and carbon monoxide detectors in all rental units.

“With a carbon monoxide detector, I would have my son here today,” she said.

The committee is expected to take up the bill again at its next meeting for further testimony and a vote.