Caleb Alexander-McKinzie
Caleb Alexander-McKinzie, an advocate for renters, speaks up for minimal habitability standards in Arkansas.

Lawmakers on the House Insurance and Commerce committee narrowly passed a significantly amended bill Wednesday that would insure most rental properties in the state meet minimal standards to protect the health and safety of tenants.

Committee Chair Mark Lowery (R-Maumelle) cast the deciding vote, giving House Bill 1563 establishing minimum habitability standards the 11 votes it needed to advance to the full House.

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Arkansas is the only state in the country that doesn’t provide these minimal protections for renters. But landlords tanked a similar bill during the 2019 session, and they’re pushing hard against the 2021 version, arguing that the costs to keep their rental properties in compliance with the new requirements are too high.

“For landlords who have argued that somehow this is going to be the end to all landlords: Every other state in the country has this already and the sky is not falling yet,” Rep. Jimmy Gazaway (R-Paragould) said as he made closing arguments for the bill he’s sponsoring. “I predict that if we pass this piece of legislation, for good landlords they won’t even know it passed. It wouldn’t affect them in the least.”

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Specifically, the bill requires only that properties are waterproof and protect occupants from the elements and that they have plumbing, heat and ventilation in good working order; hot and cold running water; electricity with wiring and equipment maintained in good working order; functioning smoke and carbon dioxide detectors and locks on the doors. Landlords would also have to keep rental properties free of dangerous mold and vermin infestations and provide “floors, doors, windows, walls, ceilings, stairways, and railings that are in good repair so as not to materially affect the health and safety of the occupants.”

The powerful Arkansas Realtor’s Association killed the 2019 version of this bill, and Gazaway and other sponsors have worked hard to create a meaningful measure that won’t get shot down by the supermajority Republican legislature that tends to favor business interests.

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HB 1563 is aimed at bad apple landlords whose tenants’ health and lives are threatened by unsafe living conditions. Last week, the committee heard a couple of hours of testimony from property owners against the bill and doctors, tenants and a grieving mother who support the bill. The mother recently lost her son to carbon monoxide poisoning because the rental property he lived relied on gas heat but lacked a detector. HB 1563 would require functioning smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in all gas-heated rental units.

Since then, Gazaway made significant amendments to the bill to accommodate landlords’ requests, removing an entire section that would alter eviction procedures in the state. He added a provision that only landlords who own more than four rental properties will have to meet the minimum habitability standards after hearing testimony last week that retiree and mom and pop landlords would suffer financially if HB 1563 goes into law. Gazaway also removed a part of the original bill that would have allowed tenants to make repairs and take the cost out of their next month’s rent. The idea for these changes all came out of conversations with landlords, Gazaway said. “I hope you can see we’re trying to work in good faith here,” he said.

More people came to the Capitol to testify for and against the bill today.

Attorney Caleb Alexander-McKinzie, a board member with the renters’ advocacy group Arkansans for Stronger Communities, said our state can no longer afford to wait. He has spoken with parents whose children died from carbon monoxide poisoning because their homes had not detectors. During the epic snowstorm in February of this year, Alexander-McKinzie spent a week volunteering at an emergency warming station at the Arkansas State Fairgrounds and was surprised to find that some of the people seeking shelter there weren’t homeless, but that their homes lacked heat or had holes in walls and roofs that made them open to the elements. These tenants lacked the financial resources to move, and feared asking their landlords for repairs because of potential retaliation, Alexander-McKinzie said. Arkansas’s lack of basic renter’s rights forces economically desperate families into unsafe living conditions and creates a pipeline to homelessness, he said.

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Loriee Evans of Indivisible Little Rock also spoke in favor of passing HB 1563. She cited a study showing the correlation between poor living conditions and asthma that causes children to miss school and requires lots of medical care.

Mark Burrier, a member of the Faulkner County Landlords Association, spoke against the bill, saying that most landlords he works with are not rich, and that they have very little extra money to spend on their rental properties.

Rep. Karilyn Brown (R-Sherwood) said she heard from a landlord friend that unsafe and unhealthy rental properties weren’t a problem anywhere in the state but Little Rock. Not so, said Lynn Foster, a retired attorney with expertise in renter’s rights who helped craft the bill.

“This is by no means a problem unique to Little Rock,” Foster said. She read through every eviction filing in the state this year and found accounts from Texarkana to Jonesboro about rat infestations, ceilings falling on children asleep in their beds and  repairs that don’t get addressed for months.

Voting in favor of HB 1563 were Reps. Reginald Murdock (D-Marianna), David Fielding (D-Magnolia), Monte Hodges (D-Blytheville), Ken Ferguson (D-Pine Bluff), Vivian Flowers (D-Pine Bluff), Fred Allen (D-Little Rock), Gazaway, Nicole Clowney (D-Fayetteville), Jay Richardson (D-Fort Smith), John Maddox (R-Mena) and Lowery, who cast the deciding vote. “No” votes came from Robin Lundstrum (R-Elm Springs), Justin Boyd (R-Fort Smith), Brown, Clint Penzo (R-Springdale), Jim Wooten (R-Beebe) and David Ray (R-Maumelle). Deborah Ferguson (D-West Memphis), Aaron Pilkington (R-Knoxville) and Brian Evans (R-Cabot) did not vote.