Less than a month after her son died of carbon monoxide poisoning in a rented Little Rock apartment, bereaved mother Vicki Koenig came from her home in Stuttgart to the Arkansas Capitol in March to push for a law that would keep other renters from suffering the same fate. But as we near the end of the legislative session, that bill, which would require landlords to provide carbon monoxide detectors and other basic health and safety measures, is stalled out, its prospects bleak as landlords across the state flex their muscles to keep themselves as free of regulation as possible.
Yesterday, senators passed an alternative, toothless version of a renters’ rights bill, one so anemic that it fails to even require smoke alarms in rental properties. This version offered up by Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Beebe) offers tenants who find themselves in unlivable situations no remedy but to move out. Dismang’s bill, now on its way for consideration on the House side, says landlords would have to provide water, electricity, a functioning roof and walls, and they would have to maintain any heat and air systems that existed when the lease began. But if they don’t, tenants still would have no path for redress and no real option except to leave — and only then if the tenant is up-to-date on rent.
Would Dismang’s Senate Bill 594 even move the needle for Arkansas, which remains the only state in the country where landlords are free to rent out dangerous and unhealthy properties? Koenig doesn’t think so. She returned to Little Rock a couple of weeks ago to oppose Dismang’s version. She suspects her son, a Peace Corps volunteer and Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and The Arts alumni, had never been told about the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning in his rental. And nothing would have been different for him if this new bare-bones compromise measure had been on the books when he signed his lease, she said. “This bill would do nothing for him.”
Sponsor Dismang, who is a landlord himself, sold his compromise bill as a starting point, a way to get at least a semblance of renter protections codified after a years-long fight. He told senators he simply wanted something he could pass. “If it doesn’t go far enough, I apologize,” he said when presenting his bill in the Senate Insurance and Commerce Committee, where it squeaked by with a 5-4 vote.
But opponents worry this minimalist bill may be worse than nothing at all, an end to a long and unsuccessful battle to protect cash-strapped tenants from predatory landlords. Should it become law, opponents worry landlords will rebuff any future efforts to strengthen it, saying we already have renter protection laws on the books and don’t need more. And this bill will still leave Arkansas as the only state in the country without an implied warranty of habitability, an unstated guarantee that a rental property meets basic living and safety standards.
“It doesn’t go far enough,” said Lynn Foster, a retired law professor and longtime advocate for Arkansas tenants. “If it passes, I believe it will be used as an excuse not to pass the law that should be enacted.”
Dismang’s version of a renter protection bill is “an empty promise,” said Caleb Alexander-McKinzie, a law student who works with Foster as a member of the tenants’ rights group Arkansans for Stronger Communities. It leaves Arkansas landlords in a unique class of their own as the only service providers who are free to peddle products that can sicken or kill, because they have convinced lawmakers that providing safe, healthy rental properties would be an untenable economic burden, he said.
“If a service provider or retailer or manufacturer came to this committee and said, ‘I can’t afford to provide a safe product,’ this committee would laugh them out of the room. We’d say, ‘You can’t afford to be in this business then,’ ” Alexander-McKinzie told senators.
Foster and Alexander-McKinzie support a different, stronger version of a renter’s rights bill introduced on the House side earlier this session by Rep. Jimmy Gazaway (R-Paragould). But prospects for Gazaway’s brawnier bill now look bleak.
Gazaway steered his more substantial version of renter’s rights legislation, House Bill 1563, through a series of contentious committee meetings last month. As in years past when similar efforts to protect economically vulnerable renters from predatory property owners faltered under pressure from the deep pockets Arkansas Realtors Association and powerful property owners, landlords lined up to testify about dirty tenants who brought roach infestations on themselves and renters who took batteries out of smoke detectors at Christmas to use in their children’s new toys.
Gazaway managed to narrowly pass HB 1563 out of the House Insurance and Commerce Committee but hasn’t brought it to the House floor yet, worried he won’t get the votes.
But Dismang’s version is not a strong alternative, Gazaway said. “I am very disappointed to see that it does not have, at a minimum, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, because those will save lives.”
So many Arkansas lawmakers are landlords themselves that it’s hard not to wonder if renters are getting a fair shake. Landlord legislator Rep. Robin Lundstrum dominated much of the discussion of Gazaway’s bill in the House Insurance and Commerce Committee, where she blamed tenants who complained about cockroaches for inviting them in by being unclean. And Senate leader Jimmy Hickey (R-Texarkana), who owns and manages rental properties for a living, echoed Lundstrum’s sentiments about unclean tenants before voting in favor of Dismang’s landlord-friendly version. Hickey complained of tenants who failed to use fans and bath mats causing mold and mildew problems in his properties, and said he didn’t want to be held responsible for property damage that renters didn’t tell him about until it became unlivable.
Hickey and other landlord lawmakers have also raised questions about any liability they might invite with a renters’ rights bill that requires them to install smoke or carbon monoxide detectors. What if the detectors malfunction, or if tenants remove batteries before a fire but then deny it? Is this a trick to make landlords liable?
Gazaway doesn’t buy that objection, saying he’s offered amended language to address these specific concerns, but that the language wasn’t accepted. And Foster, the retired law professor, poked more holes in the argument that landlords will be put in legal peril if a meaningful renters’ rights law passes in Arkansas. Landlords in all 49 other states are subject to such laws and manage to still turn a profit, she said.
So what’s on the horizon for cash-strapped Arkansas tenants stuck in abusive relationships with their landlords? Will there be any relief for renters who can’t afford the deposit on a new place so have no choice but to remain where they are? Unless Gazaway figures out a way to get his bill moving again, they’re unlikely to get any real help from Arkansas lawmakers in 2021.
The compromise bill from the Senate side may not hurt, but it won’t help much, either, Gazaway said.
“I’m not saying I won’t support this bill,” he said. “I want to see some protections for tenants come out of this session, and I will be happy if there is something. But I want there to be meaningful protections, especially those that relate to health and safety.”
Passage of Dismang’s compromise bill would be the latest in a string of wins for Arkansas landlords. Earlier this month Rep. Nicole Clowney (D-Fayetteville) failed in her attempt to get approval for House Bill 1798 to end Arkansas’s status as the only state in the country to make a crime of failure to pay rent.