Renters’ rights bill advances in House committee

by Marine Glisovic ([email protected]) 520 views 

A bill that would create a minimum habitability standard for renters in Arkansas passed out of the House Insurance and Commerce Committee on Wednesday (March 17).

Prior to the vote, the sponsor of the bill Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, reminded his colleagues that Arkansas is the only state in the nation without such standards.

“Arkansas is the only state in the country that doesn’t have an implied warranty of habitability and so I think in that regard we need to be serious when we consider the issue that’s before us. We are literally the only state in the country,” he said.

While HB 1563 has been amended multiple times, it appears Gazaway struck enough of a balance to get it passed out of committee.

The bill passed on a voice-vote. A request for a roll call showed it passed 11-5.

The safe housing bill would create habitable standards, which includes providing working plumbing, heat and air, hot and cold water, working electricity, and reasonable measures to address pest control – unless an infestation is caused by an occupant.

One of the hang-ups for landlords – the last time Gazaway ran the bill – was the financial liability to provide pest control.

During last week’s debate, Darrell Cook, a landlord from Jonesboro said, “When you have a tenant that leaves tuna fish lying around, steaks lying around, all kind of food lying around … you try and get rid of roaches.”

Since last week, Gazaway amended the bill to allow further flexibility when it comes to pest infestations caused by tenants who neglect to take care of the property.

Another issue highlighted by landlords was the legal liability to provide smoke detectors or carbon monoxide detectors. Some feared they would be held accountable for providing those devices and having no control of tenants taking out the batteries.

The amended version that passed on Wednesday includes language that does not hold property owners legally responsible if an incident occurs.

Part of the amendment also states this bill only applies to property owners who own more than four dwelling units. It removes a section that would have created a new eviction process through district court. Gazaway said upon further discussions with landlords, they did not see a need to change the current process.

An attorney who represents landlords, Sylvester Smith, told the committee that now is not the time to be taking up such bills.

“This bill, I will admit, was much better than what we saw previously. However, the best reason to take a hard look at it is that we are in the midst of a pandemic and tenants have had lots of help,” Smith said.

“They have had $4,000 a month unemployment, they have had rental assistance programs funded by the federal government, landlords have had very little help. I can tell you, due to the CDC eviction efforts by individual judges to slow evictions, there are landlords that haven’t received rent in a year.”

Smith said he had a court case last week where $9,000 in rent was owed to one of his clients.

The bill now heads to the House Floor for a full vote.

Editor’s note: Marine Glisovic is the senior political reporter for KATV News and is a contributor to Talk Business & Politics.

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