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EAST OAKS APARTMENT: In Fayetteville. NOVO Studios

With unemployment in Arkansas skyrocketing in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and renters facing threats of losing their homes, advocates for tenants have pushed for a temporary moratorium on evictions, a measure implemented in some form in 42 other states. At least 100 civil eviction complaints have been filed for nonpayment of rent in the state in the month of April, according to an analysis by an expert in housing law, a figure that represents a significant undercount in the total number of eviction actions because of limitations in tracking.

Governor Hutchinson has said that there is no need for state action, and expressed confidence that landlords would work with tenants facing financial difficulty due to the pandemic. “I expect landlords to work in a humanitarian fashion,” he said in a press conference on April 29. “We know that they need to be patient.” He said that he was “relying upon the trust relationship” between renters and landlords.

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But some renters have found that landlords are not showing leniency, and are threatening eviction if tenants fail to pay rent on time, even if tenants are facing a sudden loss in income related to COVID-19.

According to written communications sent to tenants at several Northwest Arkansas properties managed by Fayetteville-based Lindsey Management, some apartment managers are not budging on rent due this month. Lindsey is “the largest property management firm of multi-family housing in the state,” according to its website, and manages more than 26,000 units statewide (the apartment complexes managed by Lindsey are owned by separate corporate entities, but many of those are affiliated with Lindsey Management CEO James Earl “Lyndy” Lindsey). On May 4, residents who had not yet paid May rent began receiving notices informing them that late fees were being assessed at $10 per day. “If your account is not paid by the 6th of the month, management will begin the legal eviction process, which may result in your being liable for any attorney’s fees and costs incurred,” the notices stated.

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“The properties are working with the residents that have been impacted,” said Anne Mourney, general legal counsel at Lindsey Management. For the month of April, Mourney said, property managers generally gave tenants extra time, around six days, to pay their rent without incurring late fees. As for May, she said, “at this point they are to follow the terms of their lease. The rent is due on a certain day and late fees begin to accrue on a certain day.”

“The residents are expected to continue to pay rent,” Mourney said. “It’s important to them to do that because they have a lease and they want to keep their home.” She reiterated that apartment managers were working with impacted tenants, but said that if a tenant doesn’t pay rent as agreed, the eviction process would move forward. In some cases, she said, apartment managers may have come to a payment arrangement with tenants. Mourney said she couldn’t comment on specific practices at particular apartment complexes managed by Lindsey. She said that the apartment complexes were dependent on timely rent to continue operations and that residents struggling to pay rent could reach out to nonprofits in the community for help.

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Branden Lee, a Fayetteville radio host, has begun using his weekday KNXA afternoon show, 3B Radio, as a platform to speak out about landlord-tenant issues during the pandemic. He said that around 20 local residents have contacted him about stringent policies at properties managed by Lindsey. In a series of recent Facebook posts, Lee criticized “mass replied emails sent to financially struggling tenants during a pandemic.”

Lee provided an email exchange between one tenant and the community director at the East Oaks/Oakshire Apartments in Fayetteville on April 23. “There will not be any exceptions made like the ones that were allowed for April,” the community director wrote.

The tenant responded, saying that her work hours had been reduced due to COVID-19 and she was in need of assistance with her rental situation. “I was told we could get help with that information,” she wrote.

“I received the information from your employer but I explained to you that there had not been a decision at that time as to how May rent payments would be handled,” the community director wrote back. “The decision has been made that May rent payments will be required as per the terms of the lease.” Asked for comment, the community director at East Oaks/Oakshire Apartments referred all questions to Lindsey Management. (According to county records and the Arkansas Secretary of State’s website, this complex of four apartment communities includes properties owned by limited partnerships affiliated with James Earl Lindsey.)

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The renters’ rights advocacy group Arkansas Renters United has organized protests at the state Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion calling for a moratorium on rent, and wrote a letter to the governor in March, warning of an increase in homelessness and housing insecurity if the state did not protect tenants from eviction. “A number of tenants have called us and said they’ve been threatened with eviction,” said Neil Sealy, an Arkansas Renters United organizer. “A lot of the renters that we know work service jobs and they were laid off. How would they be able to pay rent? As long as we’re asking some people to stay at home, people have to have a home to stay in.*

“Sometimes the mere threat or just the notice from the landlord on the door saying that you’re out, people may not know the law and they will think they’re legally evicted,” Sealy said.

Latasha Washington has received multiple notices telling her to vacate her apartment at The Links at Texarkana, a complex managed by Lindsey Management. For the last seven years, Washington has made a living as a brand ambassador, doing hourly gig work as an independent contractor to promote products at events or at grocery and retail stores. Washington is the sole provider for her 22-year-old daughter, who has a mental health disability, and her 3-year-old grandson. When much of the economy shuttered in March, Washington’s jobs disappeared. She was suddenly left with no income and was unable to pay April rent.

Washington said she told The Links management at the beginning of April that she had applied for unemployment and food stamps and was awaiting approval, and that she was still awaiting her stimulus check. “I let them know that I was applying for help and benefits, and they basically just don’t care,” she said. “They weren’t even giving me time to even get any of the benefits.” Asked for comment, the community director at The Links referred all questions to Lindsey Management. (According to county records and the Arkansas Secretary of State website, the property is owned by a limited partnership affiliated with James Earl Lindsey.)

No legal eviction action has yet been taken, Washington said. “They were just threatening me, telling me to get out and move,” she said. “They’re basically trying to force you or harass you to get out. They’re bullying everybody, it’s not just me. If you’re out there, you can literally see them knock door-to-door.” She said that management called three or four times a week and showed up to knock on her door in person if she didn’t answer the call. One e-mail stated: “I am sincerely sorry that your situation is what it is, but no one can live here rent free. To avoid having to move out at least something towards your rent needs to be paid. Thank you, Have A Wonderful Day!”

“This has been so terrible and so stressful,” Washington said. “I’m scared my family is going to get sick, I’m scared we’re not going to have a place to live, I’m scared we’re not going to have a way to make money. I don’t know what to do.”

Arkansas is one of just eight states that has taken no action on suspending evictions during the pandemic. Some states’ moratoriums applied only to tenants who cannot pay rent for reasons related to COVID-19, while others halted all evictions; some moratoriums expire this month while others extend for the duration of the public health emergency or longer.

“So many places across the country have taken steps like this,” said state Sen. Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville). “We have seen red areas and blue areas pass a moratorium.” Arkansas law is notoriously unfriendly to tenants, Leding said. It’s the only state in the nation that makes failure to pay rent a criminal violation and also the only state that does not require landlords to maintain safe, sanitary and fit premises for tenants to live in. “To me, it is not surprising that the state that is literally the worst [in the country] for renters would not take this kind of action,” Leding said.

“If there is anyone that is being evicted for non-payment of rent because they lost their job because of COVID-19, then we would encourage you to reach out,” Governor Hutchinson said at a May 1 press conference. Asked this week about how people could do so, the governor said that they could call the constituent services department at 501-682-2345 or contact his office online. The governor also encouraged people to contact nonprofits to help them access financial help such as unemployment benefits, or contact the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or legal aid organizations in the state if they were threatened with eviction.

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“Ultimately however, renters and landlords need to work together to find a solution under these circumstances,” Hutchinson said. “Arkansans have been generous to one another in previous disasters and I believe they are doing the same under this emergency.” He said that the volume of legal eviction cases was currently lower than normal. “We’ll continue to reassess based on the court filings that we see, but so far a moratorium seems unwarranted,” he said.

Brian Chilson
GOVERNOR HUTCHINSON: No moratorium needed.

With a few exceptions, the Arkansas Supreme Court has suspended in-person proceedings in all courts through May 15, including civil eviction hearings. The governor has previously cited this suspension in arguing that there is no need for a moratorium. However, eviction filings have continued and in some cases eviction orders can be issued despite the restrictions on in-person hearings imposed by the Supreme Court. In practice, while eviction proceedings have been delayed in some courts, they have moved forward in others. The Supreme Court on Friday issued a new order that hearings will resume in all courts on May 18, with options for video or audio conferencing at the discretion of the judge.

With the courts moving slowly and most in-person proceedings delayed, eviction actions overall appear to be down during the pandemic. But advocates for tenants believe that a sharp uptick is likely coming as the courts begin to return to normal operation, landlords become more aggressive with tenants who remain behind on rent, and many tenants run out of money as economic struggles drag on and the one-time stimulus checks from the federal government are spent.

The situation is a ticking time bomb, said Lynn Foster, a retired UA Little Rock law professor and longtime advocate for reforming Arkansas’s housing laws. “Right now, many people have gotten stimulus payments and the courts are not holding hearings and a few places are not issuing writs of possession [eviction orders],” she said. “But what happens as we start to open things back up, but it’s going slowly and people have lost their jobs?”

“We are worried about a wave of filings coming up soon when the courts are starting to return to normal,” said Kendall Lewellen, managing attorney at the Center for Arkansas Legal Services, a legal aid nonprofit. “I think we’re going to see big numbers.” In addition to new filings, courts will soon face a backlog of complaints that have not yet led to eviction orders. “There’s one court I practice in, and I saw they had around 20 eviction trials scheduled for one morning,” Lewellen said.

The federal CARES Act, the COVID-19 relief bill passed by Congress at the end of March, imposed a moratorium through July 24 on evictions at certain properties, including federally subsidized rentals and federally backed mortgages. Most tenants are likely unaware of whether the CARES Act moratorium covers their property, and in many cases, eviction orders are issued by court clerks that may not closely scrutinize complaints. The Arkansas Supreme Court issued an order on April 28 mandating that eviction complaints had to affirmatively state that the property is not covered by the CARES Act. Advocates for tenants applauded the ruling, but say that it’s too early to determine how effective it is at preventing eviction actions for housing covered by the CARES Act.

Most rental properties, meanwhile, are not covered by the CARES Act. “There’s a huge injustice right now because tenants who through no fault of their own cannot pay their rent are going to lose their homes in the middle of a pandemic,” Foster said. “Then you have this arbitrary situation where some tenants get a postponement until July and others are not, when it’s completely within the governor’s power to extend the CARES Act protections to all.”

Foster noted that unlawful detainers, a common type of eviction proceeding in the state that does not always require a hearing, have continued to be filed in some courts during the pandemic. If the landlord files an unlawful detainer complaint, the court will send notice to the tenant, who then has five days to file an objection. If the tenant fails to do so, the clerk of the court issues an eviction order, known as a writ of possession. The courts are still accepting filings, and landlords across the state filed at least 100 unlawful detainers in April against residents specifically for nonpayment of rent, according to tracking conducted by Foster. (Foster excluded hundreds of other unlawful detainer complaints that cited reasons other than nonpayment of rent; her tracking does not include Crittenden County, which does not scan its pleadings).

Eight counties have suspended issuing writs of possession until further notice during the pandemic, meaning that in those jurisdictions, no eviction orders will be issued on unlawful detainer complaints even if the tenant fails to object within five days. In the remaining 67 counties, writs of possession can apparently still be issued and enforced. During April, at least 26 such eviction orders were issued statewide, according to Foster’s tracking.

Even in jurisdictions that are not currently issuing eviction orders on unlawful detainers, a notice on the door could be interpreted by some tenants as an eviction. “A lot of tenants read that notice and they don’t understand what it means,” Foster said. “It’s not written in plain English.”

“Most people don’t understand that they have a right to contest it through the courts or they just don’t feel up to that kind of challenge,” Lewellan said. In many cases, she said, tenants may think they have been evicted even if a landlord never files a legal complaint at all, but sends a vague or informal eviction notice through a letter, verbal communication, or text.

In addition to unlawful detainers, the state has two other types of eviction proceedings, neither of which are possible to fully track on the state’s Court Connect system and thus are not included in Foster’s count. One is a different type of civil eviction, pursued in district court. The other is a criminal eviction — under Arkansas law, the only law of its kind in the nation, tenants who fail to pay rent and fail to vacate the property after being given a 10-day notice can be charged with a misdemeanor and fined up to $25 for every day they remain at the property. It’s impossible to know how many of these eviction actions are proceeding during the pandemic, Foster said, but she has identified examples of both.

“People are still being prosecuted for failure to vacate during all of this,” Lewellen said. “It’s hard to say how much is happening, because most of those records you can’t find online very easily. I will say that we have had more callers with failure-to-vacate cases in the past month than we normally do.”

Tenants who fall behind on their rent may also be pushed out by other means outside of the legal system. Some landlords may illegally take actions into their own hands, known as a “self-help” eviction — for example, changing the locks, cutting off utilities, or removing tenants’ belongings. “That’s a big concern,” Lewellen said. “We used to see maybe one or two of those a month, but since the pandemic we’re seeing one or two a week.”

“There is a lot of confusion out there and there is a lot of fear around people losing their homes,” Lewellan said. “Our clients are doing everything they can to keep them, but honestly they don’t have much of a choice because if they’ve lost their income over COVID-19 and they’re not able to navigate unemployment, they don’t really have a lot of options.”

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.

*An earlier version of this story described a notice from a landlord that was shared with Arkansas Renters United. The notice went to a residence in Clay County, Missouri, not Clay County, Arkansas.