Until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Conway resident Milton Light was making good money working as a coiled tubing operator in the oil fields near Odessa, Texas. Light began getting his hours cut in March due to the pandemic and was eventually laid off April 3. He told his landlord in late March that he would have trouble paying April rent because of the sudden loss in income.
Toward the end of the month, the landlord, Genai Walker-Macklin, told Light that he would have to move out within less than a week. “I’m being nice to let you get your items out,” she said in an April 3 text message.
In the weeks that followed, Walker-Macklin did not obtain an eviction order from the courts. Instead, according to documents filed in Faulkner County Circuit Court, she had the locks changed on the house at 1685 Jackson Drive, attempted to shut the utilities off and tried to have Light’s car towed. When Light declined to move, she contacted the Arkansas Department of Human Services, claiming that the state of the house made it unfit for habitation by Light’s four children.
“His landlord began a campaign to terrorize him,” said Frank Jenner, a Center for Arkansas Legal Services attorney who is representing Light. Jenner said Walker-Macklin’s actions constituted an attempt at a “self-help” eviction, illegal in Arkansas, in which a landlord attempts to retake possession of a rental property without properly going through the court system.
Eventually, on April 30, Walker-Macklin filed a lawsuit in circuit court seeking a civil eviction, known as an unlawful detainer complaint. The case is ongoing and does not yet have a hearing set. In the meantime, Light continues to live in the house, which he is able to access only with a garage door opener. Walker-Macklin continues to take matters into her own hands. On Tuesday, while Light was away from home, Walker-Macklin had movers remove his belongings and load them into a truck before police made her stop and unload them back into his home.
Most states have implemented some form of a temporary moratorium on evictions in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Governor Hutchinson has declined to enact a similar measure in Arkansas, expressing confidence that landlords would work with tenants facing financial difficulties caused by the pandemic. “I expect landlords to work in a humanitarian fashion,” he said at a press conference April 29.
However, eviction filings have continued in Arkansas. At least 157 civil eviction complaints were filed for nonpayment of rent in April and the first half of May, according to an analysis by Lynn Foster, a retired UA Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law professor. That figure represents a significant undercount in the total number of eviction actions because of limitations in publicly available tracking. Many of these complaints refer to unpaid rent accrued before the COVID-19 crisis began, but an increasing number of evictions filings, like that against Light, are for nonpayment of rent during the pandemic.
Light’s situation also shows the problems tenants can face even if landlords don’t seek an official eviction through the legal system. It is impossible to know how often illegal self-help evictions take place in Arkansas, but Kendell Lewellen, managing attorney for the Center for Arkansas Legal Services, said the legal aid organization has heard increased complaints about the practice since the COVID-19 emergency began.
“We’re seeing an increase in evictions where landlords don’t use the legal process at all, they just come in and change someone’s locks,” she 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.”
Walker-Macklin — a financial advisor for Morgan Stanley and a former professional basketball player, according to a biography on the financial services firm’s website — lives in the Dallas area. She and her husband, Demitrius Macklin, own multiple properties in Central Arkansas (Faulkner County property records for 1685 Jackson list Demetrius as the owner). She did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.
Text messages provided by Light show he told Walker-Macklin on March 23 that his work hours were being cut. A few days later, she told him that she was planning to rent the house to new tenants and that he could meet her at the property March 31 to take care of his belongings. At the time, Light was still working in Odessa, so he had his girlfriend go to the house instead. When she arrived, she discovered the locks had been changed.
Walker-Macklin had begun actively showing the property, Light said. “There were families coming through here to look at the house,” he said in a recent interview. “Some of them didn’t know I was living in the house and I was under a lease and everything.” She even got a new tenant to sign a lease, Light said; she texted him to say that the planned move-in date was April 7 and that any belongings left in the house on April 6 would be disposed of.
Light told Walker-Macklin that the terms of the lease gave him until April 5 to pay the $1,100 rent, at which point late fees would begin accruing. He said that he planned to continue to live in the house. “I have no lease violations and have done nothing that warrants eviction,” he said in a text. “If you move my things or move another tenant in you will be in violation of the agreement you made with me.”
On April 3, Walker-Macklin wrote to Light, “Let me know the time that you will leave on [April 5]. … And, I hope to not have to include your ex-wife in any of this.” Light, who is divorced, has four children between the ages of 4 and 8 years old. They primarily stay in Wynne with their mother, Sharika Light, but often spend time with Milton when he is back in town from work (he pays monthly child support).
Light returned to Arkansas on April 4, and the situation escalated as the month went on. Walker-Macklin attempted to transfer electricity out of Light’s name, but he communicated with the utility company and was able to keep the power on. She twice called CenterPoint Energy to get his gas turned off, Light said. She also threatened to have him arrested.
Light was not charged with a crime, but some tenants in Arkansas who fail to pay rent can be. Arkansas is the only state in the nation with a criminal eviction statute. The law says tenants who fail to pay rent and fail to vacate the property after being given a 10-day notice can be charged with a criminal misdemeanor and fined up to $25 for every day they remain at the property. However, district courts in many counties do not hear such criminal eviction cases as a matter of practice. Jenner, Light’s attorney, said prosecutors in Faulkner County typically do not pursue such cases.
On April 5, Walker-Macklin texted Light and accused him of improperly caring for his children and threatened to contact his ex-wife. “Your wife being contacted doesn’t have to happen,” she said. Around a week later Walker-Macklin sent Sharika Light a text message saying she was planning to call DHS the next day about allegations of improper living conditions for the children. “It’s in his best interest to figure this out quickly because if something gets on his record, it’s hard to remove,” Walker-Macklin wrote Sharika on April 12. She said there was mold in the house caused by “the activities that he partook while there” and that she had hired a handyman to “clean and remove any doors and windows” to remove the mold.
“Now, if he leaves my house, and let me know [sic] treat the house for the mold, then their [sic] will be no reports with DHS/CPS tomorrow,” she wrote April 12.
In an April 13 text message to Light, she told him that she was going to contact DHS: “The living conditions, potential mold from uncleanliness and the lack of concernment of paying to have a roof over their heads. Those are all grounds of child endangerment.” She added, “I did not start any of this. You should have left on 3/31.”
On April 20, a social worker from DHS came to the property. Sharika Light had to take off work early, she said, and drive more than two hours to Conway for the appointment. The social worker had Milton leave and asked the kids a few questions about their father, Sharika said. “She did a walk-through of the house and everything and that was that — because they weren’t in harm’s way,” she said in a recent interview. She also said she saw no mold in the house. Milton and Sharika both say they have received no further communication from DHS. (DHS as a matter of policy will not comment on child welfare investigations.)
“She’s making these allegations that the home is in this terrible condition and he’s endangering his children, but then she posted these pictures of the home in pristine condition in her listing for it for rent on Trulia.com,” Jenner said.
On the morning of April 30, according to Light, Walker-Macklin showed up at his home with a tow truck to have his vehicle towed. She placed “no trespassing” and “private property” signs all over the windows, the fence and the front yard. Light called the police. The police declined her suggestion that Light be arrested, made her take down the signs, halted the towing of the car, and eventually left the chaotic scene.
Later that same day, Walker-Macklin filed an unlawful detainer complaint in Faulkner County Circuit Court. She included a notice to vacate, dated March 31, which stated that Light was delinquent for April rent. She accused Light of “having people move in without notification … changing locks without consent, not leaving premises within 24 hours of an eviction, and not giving proper notice for a move out.” The complaint also says Light had refused to communicate and had placed his children in harm’s way.
Light said he was perplexed by some of the accusations. “She’s the one that changed the locks,” he said. The accusation that he has allowed other people to move into the residence was also a lie, he said. “The only thing she could be referencing is my kids,” he said. “My girlfriend comes over here and leaves, but she wasn’t living here.”
Light said that he had periodically attempted to work out some sort of agreement with Walker-Macklin while he waited for his unemployment insurance to be approved. On May 4, he texted her to ask if he could make a partial payment on April rent while he waited to receive his unemployment check (the check eventually arrived on May 7).
“No, you are 34 days late on rent,” Walker-Macklin responded. “10 days or arrest. You owe at this moment, $2,200 plus $280 in late fees. That’s the only amount that can be paid or arrest.”
In a counterclaim to Walker-Macklin’s unlawful detainer complaint, Jenner accused Walker-Macklin of pursuing an illegal self-help eviction, arguing that she had engaged in attempts at forcible entry and forcible removal of Light from his home. Jenner asked the court to enter an order preventing further such actions and awarding an unspecified amount of damages.
Jenner also raised the question of whether the property is covered by a federal prohibition on certain evictions. The CARES Act, the COVID-19 relief bill passed by Congress at the end of March, imposed a moratorium through July 24 on evictions at some properties, including federally subsidized rentals and federally backed mortgages. The Arkansas Supreme Court issued an order April 28 mandating that an eviction complaint must affirmatively state that the property is not covered by the CARES Act; Walker-Macklin’s complaint does not do so.
Jenner noted that Walker-Macklin’s complaint included a copy of a monthly mortgage statement for the property that lists an FHA insurance fee. In a text message to Light in April, Walker-Macklin said the property would not fall under the moratorium: “the CARES Act applies to rents of Arkansas homes with federal government loans. Our house is paid in full.” However, the mortgage statement attached to her complaint includes an outstanding principal amount of $92,479.59
On May 14, Jenner asked the court for a preliminary injunction barring Walker-Macklin from taking further steps to remove Light from the house without a court order. The court should also require Walker-Macklin to provide Light with keys to the new locks to restore full access to his home, he argued. According to Jenner’s filing, Walker-Macklin has continued to list the property for rent.
“It’s just a really exemplary case of the hardships that renters, especially here in Arkansas, are facing,” Jenner said. Advocates for tenants have long argued that Arkansas has the most unfriendly laws for renters in the nation. In addition to being the only state in the nation that makes failure to pay rent a criminal violation, it is also the only state that does not require landlords to maintain safe, sanitary and fit premises for tenants to live in.
Light said that he would like to seek a new job but is now nervous to leave his home. Rather than waiting for the court, Walker-Macklin is still trying to force Light out of the house. On Tuesday morning, Light returned to his home after dropping his children off at their mother’s house and found that his belongings were being hauled out of the house by a team of movers. Light called the police. Walker-Macklin still did not have a court order for the eviction, and the police again told the landlord to desist (the movers brought the items in the moving truck back in the house, but Light told police that not all of his belongings had been returned).
“He’s afraid to leave his home to work because he’s afraid she’s going to throw his stuff out on the curb,” Jenner said. “Which is, again, against the law, but now he can’t even go back to work out of fear of his landlord’s actions.”
This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.