Tessie Tull says she moved into a furnished apartment at the East Oaks Complex, and it was infested with bed bugs.
After the Lindsey Management Company denied her request to move to a new building, Tull says she refused to return to the apartment. The complex charged her for three months rent and a $300 bed bug treatment.
While looking at Tull's options, her lawyer Betsy Finocchi made a startling discovery.
“There is something called an implied warranty of habitability,” she says. “Simply by renting a property to someone, you're implying that it's habitable, and that usually means it's safe, stable and secure.”
However, Arkansas is the only state in the country without the provision.
The Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act is a set of laws designed to offer a balanced approach to rental rights. In 2007, the Arkansas State Legislature adopted the act, or at least part of it.
“They literally removed every pro-tenant piece of that legislation," says W. Marshall Prettyman, Director of Litigation for Legal Aid of Arkansas. “Renters basically have no rights in Arkansas."
Prettyman says the rule in Arkansas is basically, renter beware.
“We are the only state that doesn't have a warranty of habitability,” he says. “(And) We are the only state where it's a crime not to pay your rent."
“A landlord could knowingly rent to you and your family a place he or she knows to be unsafe,” says State Representative Greg Leding (D-86). “If you fail to pay your rent they could have you charged with a criminal violation."
In 2012 Prettyman was appointed to a commission created to look into the state's tenant-landlord laws.
“There were five of us who you would consider pro-tenant, five who you would consider pro-landlord,” Prettyman says. “We basically came out unanimous on everything, including a warranty of habitability."
Leding co-sponsored legislation in 2013 to enact the suggestions, but says the bills were dead on arrival.
“We never had the votes to advance it out of committee,” Leding says. “There were a number of people in the real estate industry that sort of beat us to the punch, and managed to circle the wagons before we were able to.”
“The Realtors Association killed every attempt to enact anything that came out of the commission's report,” Prettyman says. “There's no one lobbying for the tenant here, and there's very powerful forces lobbying for the landlords."
Leding hopes to revisit the issue in the 2015 legislative session and he wants anyone who's had trouble in a rental to speak up.
“It's absolutely important that they contact their representatives in both the House and the Senate to make sure they're able to express their concerns," he says. “The realtors do have a very strong lobby in Little Rock, and your average working family who might run into problems doesn't necessarily have that lobbying ability."
Prettyman hopes those voices are heard. He says most landlords want to keep properties up, but without legal responsibility, others will take advantage of their tenants.
“There are always some that are just trying to make a buck,” he says. “If the tenants aren't in a position to push to have necessary repairs made, that's the way it's going to stay."
Tull is suing the management company and the owners of the apartment for negligence, fraudulent concealment, and battery, and she hopes her story will bring attention to the lack of protection for tenants in the Natural State.
UPDATE: Tim Grooms, Legal counsel for the Arkansas Realtors Association says the group did not actively lobby against the 2013 bills.
However, in the ARA's 2013 Legislative Summary available here, Wally Loveless, 2013 ARA Legislative Committee Chairman writes: "We fought legislation intended to fundamentally change the landlord-tenant practices in Arkansas. Among the many changes proposed, this legislation would have dramatically increased landlord liability and insurance costs. The municipal eviction process would have been eliminated and a warranty of habitability imposed."
Grooms says Arkansas has some of the cheapest rental rates in the nation, and adding the laws would cause those costs to go up.
He says a renter wants good, safe and affordable housing, but Grooms doesn't think statewide legislation is necessary to achieve that.
The ARA drafted a Landlord/Tenant handbook, available here, that outlines each party's rights and responsibilities when renting a property.
Grooms says it is important for people to make sure to read, and understand every part of a lease before signing. He says if you don't understand everything, hire a lawyer before entering the contract.
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