Renters' Rights

LITTLE ROCK (KATV) - Arkansas is the only state in the nation where a landlord isn't required by state law to fix anything.

We're also the only state in the nation where you can be locked up for not paying your rent.

We're going to take a closer look tonight at that balance...or imbalance...between the rights of landlords and renters in Arkansas.

While groups representing property owners say the way things are has helped lower rent rates to among the cheapest in the nation, others say the lack of rights for renters here is embarrassing and needs to change.

Three bills were filed during the 2013 legislative session that sought to strengthen the rights of renters.

All went nowhere.

"I think that there isn't much of a lobby that represents tenants at the legislature," says U.A.L.R. Law professor Lynn Foster. "But there are some lobbies...strong lobbies...that represent landlords."

Professor Foster has taught property law for 13 years. She recently served on a commission that spent most of last year studying the issue.

"You mentioned tenants don't really have a lobbyist but the landlords do. And we have come across an email that kind of gets into that," says the reporter as he presents the email to Professor Foster.

It was sent well before the session ended and states in part "...we have won the 2013 landlord tenant engagement. All three bills will not make it out of committee."

But it goes on to warn that those championing renters rights will be back for the "...2015 session." "...we are in a war - not a battle."

The email then encourages "...a unified we will win again in 2015."

"Anything that has an impact on landlords or tenants, or buyers or sellers, we stay involved in," says Wally Loveless, the author of the email.

Loveless is with the Arkansas Realtors Association. He says if you like low rent rates in Arkansas, then the status quo is not such a bad thing.

"Our main focus with regards to landlord/tenants is to always try to maintain one of the lowest rent rates in the country," explains Loveless.

"It stank," says Sanston Foster of the Fountain Lakes apartment he rented in Benton. "That's the first thing that you noticed."

Sanston Foster didn't have a problem with the cost of his apartment.

His problem was with the apartment itself.

"I just had to get out of there for health reasons," says Sanston Foster. "I was sick in that apartment more times than I've been sick for a long time."

Foster moved out...but he is not going quietly.

He and several other former residents of apartments operated by Lindsey Management have filed a federal lawsuit.

They allege they were shown "model apartments" but after signing a lease and paying a security deposit they were given the key to units that were "unlivable."

Alleged problems include "water damage," "mold," "insect infestations," "sewage back up," and "rodents."

The plaintiffs claim "Lindsey refused to correct any of these problems" and most were evicted after complaining.

"Nobody is saying that there aren't tenants who break leases and who default on their agreements," says Professor Foster. "Nobody in this dialogue is saying that at all. But what some people are saying is that for those good tenants who are dealing with landlords who default on their agreements and landlords who misrepresent situations to judges, those folks are left with no rights basically."

The city of Pine Bluff is considering an ordinance targeting slumlords.

Loveless says that is a better approach to the problem.

"The changes need to be made on a local basis," argues Loveless. "And this is part of the problem with the initiative to have it be a one-size-fits-all, forced down your throat, for any sized town...we have a diverse state."

But Foster says renter protections good enough for 49 other states ought to be good enough for Arkansas.

He's not willing to wait any longer for politicians to fix the problem.

"What should be required of a property owner or landlord?"

"Well, I mean if there is a set of standards for a business where people sit down and eat a meal there should be a set of standards for a place where you're getting paid $500 a month," says Sanston Foster.

Lindsey Management did not return our call for comment but in a previous statement said the federal lawsuit is without merit.

Air date: November 14th, 2013