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A Pulaski County circuit judge has issued a ruling stating that because minimum standards of safety and habitability are set by Little Rock city code, those standards are implied in any lease agreement in the city.

Tenants' rights attorneys said the ruling will allow tenants to sue their landlords if their rental properties don't meet those standards, but the city attorney said that would be a major shift in the law and he isn't certain yet whether that interpretation is correct.

In a partial judgment granted in a case involving an apartment complex, the city of Little Rock and a tenant advocacy group, Gray said there is an "implied warranty of habitability" in any lease agreement between tenant and landlord in the city.

Because all dwelling units must conform to the city's housing code -- which sets minimum standards for habitability in things like sanitation, heating and cooling amenities, and safety devices -- those same standards are implied in lease agreements, Gray's ruling said.

There is no state law requiring landlords to keep their properties habitable, making Arkansas the only state in the nation without such tenant protections. Gray's ruling only pertains to properties leased in Little Rock.

As Gray's ruling points out, Arkansas appellate courts have consistently upheld the doctrine of caveat lessee, or "tenant beware," meaning the tenant alone is responsible for making sure a dwelling is safe to reside in.

Her ruling also said the state's higher courts had never addressed whether an implied warranty of habitability is created by a city's housing code.

The ruling would allow tenants to file lawsuits against landlords whose properties fail to meet the standards set by city code, said attorney Dustin Duke of Arkansas Legal Services, which is representing tenants in the case Gray ruled on Wednesday.

But Little Rock's city attorney said he isn't yet certain whether the ruling would allow tenants to file suits against landlords.

The ruling is "such a shift in Arkansas law" that "we're going to have to look at more closely," City Attorney Tom Carpenter said.

"It's an opinion that's going to have to be looked at carefully and thought about in terms of Arkansas law, and then we'll have to figure out where to go from there," he said.

Prior to the ruling, a tenant's only recourse was to submit complaints to the city's code enforcement division, which can take remedial action against neglectful landlords through environmental court.

But Little Rock's rental inspection team, which is composed of five code enforcement officers, is stretched thin in a city with 35,000 rental units. By the end of this year, the five-officer team expects to inspect 3,500 units.

A city ordinance that requires every rental unit to be inspected at least once every two years is "virtually impossible to accomplish," Code Enforcement Division Manager Edward Garland said.

The division is crafting changes to that ordinance, which will be presented to the city Board of Directors later this year, Garland said.

But Gray's ruling will allow tenants to take enforcement into their own hands, Duke said.

"Code enforcement does a pretty good job ... but the problem is they just don't have enough workers, considering the number of rental units in the city," Duke said.

"I think this [ruling] is a great thing for the city of Little Rock and all the folks that are renters in Little Rock," Duke said. "I think it gives them an opportunity to make sure that landlords are following Little Rock code, and make sure that landlords are keeping their units up to minimum standards."

Gray's Wednesday ruling was the latest development in a yearslong fight between Alexander Apartments -- a 141-unit, 17-building complex on Colonel Glenn Road -- and the city.

In December 2015, the city ordered all residents to move out of the complex after inspectors reported finding numerous fire code and building violations that officials said put the residents' lives in danger.

Exposed wiring, raw sewage, broken smoke alarms, possible mold, a dead cat, and plumbing and mechanical issues were reported by the Little Rock Fire Department at the time. The residents, who numbered more than 100, were given a week to relocate, which caused concern among residents at the time, given that Christmas was only a few days away.

Gray soon halted the relocations in response to a lawsuit filed by apartment owners, ruling that the city could not evict tenants and take action against the complex until the lawsuit is resolved. A weeklong trial is now set for December, two years after the suit's filing.

After the suit was filed, Arkansas Legal Services intervened in the case on behalf four tenants -- two of whom have since settled with the landlords out of court -- and Arkansas Community Organizations, a tenant advocacy group.

The pro bono legal aid organization is suing the city for failing to properly notify tenants of their eviction and for not giving tenants the right to due process, Duke said. It also is suing the apartment owners for the "deplorable conditions of the property," Duke said.

Metro on 08/13/2017

Print Headline: Judge says code implied in lease

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