A CLOSER LOOK: Arkansas evictions during COVID-19; tenants and the law

A Closer Look

2 landlords filed an eviction lawsuit on Christmas Eve: 1 in Fayetteville, 1 in Little Rock

Getty Images.

ARKANSAS (KNWA/KFTA) — By the end of the year, Congress enacted new stimulus legislation to help people impacted by COVID-19 to help make ends meet.

On December 27, $25 billion, of a $2.3 trillion COVID-19 spending bill, was included by Congress for emergency rental assistance. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) extended the rental moratorium through January 31. Six-hundred-dollar stimulus checks were issued and an additional $300 a week in unemployment was extended through March 14, 2021.

More than 30% of households in Arkansas rent, according to the 2010 census. And in 2020, more than 3,000 households faced eviction for nonpayment of rent.

Last year, from April to December 3,198 evictions were filed in Arkansas, according to University of Arkansas Little Rock Professor Emeritus Lynn Foster.

In December, 506 evictions were filed state-wide for nonpayment per Court Connect, however, only 69 counties, have electronic filing ability (Court Connect). Hence, evictions could be higher.

END OF YEAR FINDINGS

  • Evictions are significantly up since November
  • Many landlords file evictions after just one month of missed rent
  • Many tenants still seem unaware of the moratorium
  • There’s no uniformity in the way circuit court judges are handling eviction cases
  • Late fees make it impossible for many tenants to catch up, and the moratorium doesn’t prevent them from being charged
  • Fresh Start is helping many but not all deserving tenants and some landlords are still refusing to take rent assistance

Foster recommends “rent assistance” for tenants who have lost income through no fault of their own, since moratoriums can impact “mom and pop” landlords for whom the rent is necessary income.

LATE FEES

All late fee provisions in leases during a two-week period in December were reviewed by Foster, here’s what she found.

  • Late fees vary widely but there are several patterns.
  • Only a handful of leases did not contain a late fee provision.
  • One common type of late fee is the flat per-month fee, which typically accrues after the third, fourth, or fifth day of the month.
  • Some leases call for a second flat fee to apply a week or so later if rent has still not been paid.
  • Flat monthly fees ranged from $25 to $150 per month.
  • Sometimes such a late fee is stated as a percentage of the rent.
  • At least one lease charged a late fee of 10% of one month’s rent.
  • One of the largest late fees seen was a lease that charged $25 on the 4th of the month and $15/day afterward, so a full month’s late fees would be $425. Late fees under one lease like this amounted to almost a third of the total claimed by the landlord.

Late fee charge of $2,973

An eviction filed by Pleasant Ridge Arkansas Associates LLC, in Little Rock, is representative of the high end of additional charges. Past due rent for one month was $1089. Pleasant Ridge also claimed an entire “early move out reletting charge” of an additional $1089, plus a “rental concessions” charge of $720, whatever that means, and a late fee of $75 after the 5th of the month. As one Washington County tenant put it, “I have full intent on paying what is owed, when I can. If I couldn’t afford the $465, they have made it almost impossible to pay back, as my balance owed is $1400 and they add $10 every day.”

UALR Law Professor Emeritus Lynn Foster, for Arkansans for Stronger Communities

How long are landlords waiting before eviction lawsuits are filed?

In December, Sylvester Smith, a lawyer who files unlawful detainer actions for landlords, said, “I want to make this very clear: Landlords are not just throwing people out on the street because they’re a few days late … [they] are three, four, and five months behind.” Foster said this is incorrect. “In the last half of December, 40% of landlords evicted because they were a few days late.” Foster’s data shows that most eviction lawsuits were filed after one month’s rent was missed.

The table shows how many months landlords waited before they filed civil eviction actions.

At the end of December, the CDC extended the moratorium through January 31 and added this wording: “the Order does not prevent your landlord from seeking a hearing … to challenge the truthfulness of your declaration.”

As a reminder, a moratorium is not a rent assistance substitute. This month, many renters in Arkansas have at least three things going against them: CDC moratorium possibly ending, federal money gone and state money almost gone.

Foster said information about the moratorium needs to increase and tenants need to file the declaration with the court.

DECEMBER 2020

  • 28 tenants filed the CDC declarations with the court or said they had previously given them to their landlord.
  • 23 tenants alleged COVID-related facts as reasons for failure to pay rent but did not mention or file the declaration.

DECEMBER TENANT STORIES

Defaulting renter with facemask receives letter giving notice of eviction from home on wooden table. Getty Images.
Crittenden County Circuit Court:

In October, a landlord in Crittenden County filed an unlawful detainer action to evict a tenant. The tenant, assisted by Legal Services, timely responded with a CDC declaration. A day later, the court, seemingly unaware that the defendant had responded, ordered a writ of possession to be issued by the clerk, who complied. The sheriff’s deputy served the writ on Oct. 30, giving the tenant until Nov. 2 to vacate. The record does not indicate that the tenant was evicted; neither does it indicate the writ was set aside. Instead, the judge set a hearing for January 5. On the 5th, the landlord was quarantining and was unable to attend. The case has been continued, with the tenant presumably still on the premises. This example illustrates the value of both the CDC declaration and the assistance of an attorney.

UALR Law Professor Emeritus Lynn Foster, for Arkansans for Stronger Communities

Pulaski County Circuit Court:

In October, a Pulaski County landlord filed an unlawful detainer action to evict a family. The complaint alleged the tenants had not paid rent or late fees ($10/day). The tenant family filed a handwritten response. “I have been having problems since I lived here nothing has been fixed I have asked several times and put in maintenance request to fix my door to my daughter room. The door has been sitting in the living room for 4 months. (the tenant then listed other defects including mold, a leak, exposed wire, rats, and the ceiling falling on her daughter).” (This was the second of two tenants this month mentioning ceilings falling on their children. Arkansas, unlike all other states, does not require landlords to provide habitable premises.) This tenant delivered a CDC declaration and filed it with the court, and the judge wrote a letter to the landlord explaining that the CDC moratorium prevented her lawsuit. This is a different and better approach than many courts have taken, given 1) a pandemic and 2) the moratorium.

UALR Law Professor Emeritus Lynn Foster, for Arkansans for Stronger Communities

Pulaski County Circuit Court:

In December, a Pulaski County landlord sued a tenant for nonpayment of rent of $2,100. The landlord certified he had not received a CDC declaration. The tenant responded that she had lost employment because of COVID, had given a CDC declaration to the landlord in October, had made partial payments, and was on a waiting list with CADC for rent assistance. She listed serious property defects in her response—infestations of mice and roaches, severely backed-up plumbing, and no repairs despite several calls to Code Enforcement. She noted late fees made it impossible to get caught up. On January 7, the judge ordered a writ of possession to be issued because “no money was placed into the registry of the court as required by statute.” This egregious case is the epitome of what’s wrong with our laws. The tenant had no meaningful remedy against the landlord for failure to repair because she didn’t pay money to the court to get a hearing, something that almost no other Arkansas circuit judge requires at present but yet that our statutes require. She couldn’t get rent assistance, like many other tenants, because there just isn’t enough to go around. Late fees piled up because, through no fault of her own, she couldn’t pay rent

UALR Law Professor Emeritus Lynn Foster, for Arkansans for Stronger Communities

Washington County Circuit Court:

In December, a Washington County landlord sued to evict a family for nonpayment of rent. The tenant responded to the court that an agency that assists victims of domestic violence find housing had helped her find the apartment. She admitted she was late with rent but stated she could pay when her check, which was late, arrived. She went on to detail bad housing conditions—her son has severe asthma and uses an epi-pen. After her air conditioning broke in early summer she alleged it took the landlord 3 months to fix it, and the repair was one small unit in one room, and the temperature would get to 90 in the daytime. She also alleged a water leak causing mold in the dishwasher and a water bill of $700 because of another leak never fixed. She also complained of abuse of access and listed witnesses’ names. This case is illustrative of how evictions are often connected with landlords’ failure to repair. Most leases contain a promise by the landlord to repair, but it is a promise breached according to numerous tenant responses.

UALR Law Professor Emeritus Lynn Foster, for Arkansans for Stronger Communities

Washington County Circuit Court:

In December, a landlord in Washington County sued a tenant for nonpayment of rent. In her reply, she alleged she had given the landlord a CDC declaration in November. She stated she had “full intent on paying what is owed, when I can” but noted that a late charge of $10/day every day would make that “almost impossible.”

UALR Law Professor Emeritus Lynn Foster, for Arkansans for Stronger Communities

Future aid for tenants, as recommended by Foster

  • The moratorium should continue in the short term, but tenants must receive rent assistance so that back rent is caught up, and once that has happened, the moratorium should end.
  • Fresh Start is set to begin distributing the second half of the $10M this month. It will likely be gone in a matter of weeks in most parts of the state like the first distribution was.
  • Part of the $25B approved by Congress in December will come to Arkansas, and it should be distributed through Fresh Start, which is much easier for tenants to access than Arkansas’s original distribution mechanism.
  • Any future rent assistance from the federal government should be routed through Fresh Start.
  • The Fresh Start process should be speeded up if possible.

Arkansas Department of Human Services
2020-2021 Emergency Solutions Grant Program
COVID Agency Contact List by County

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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