Covid has caused a housing crisis worse than any in our lifetimes. Thousands of Arkansans lost their jobs. Thousands had no child care. Thousands had to quarantine. More than 6,000 died.
Almost a year and a half into the pandemic, a new variant stronger than the original virus is now infecting those who did not get vaccinated--in Arkansas, that's more than half of us.
Last fall, the federal government declared an eviction moratorium and distributed the first installment of rental assistance to the states. Arkansas chose to funnel this assistance through a bewildering number of agencies. In November, Arkansas made more of the federal money available, with better rules, and through a simpler and more effective process.
Still, the personnel needed to get aid out quickly was lacking at first. And many landlords, including at first the largest in the state, refused to accept any rent-assistance funds, dooming their tenants to eviction.
This year there have been two more infusions of federal money. The first was made available in January, but Arkansas didn't start to hand out this money in most of the state until May. As the Democrat-Gazette has reported, Arkansas has received $173 million for rent assistance from the federal government and had spent less than 1 percent as of the end of June, placing us in the seven worst states for rent-assistance distribution.
Tenants who face eviction are in a crisis. They may lack food, transportation, a phone. But tenants seeking aid have to navigate a confusing application process, so confusing that there's a five-page-long list of agencies where they can go to get help applying for aid from yet another agency. Necessary documentation is not always easy to obtain. Arkansas has chosen to impose requirements for tenants and landlords that are not required by the federal government and that make assistance harder to obtain.
Once applications are filed, they are reviewed by woefully understaffed agencies. It can be weeks before an application is even reviewed, let alone acted on. And some landlords are still refusing to accept rental assistance.
This slow-moving train wreck will hit Arkansas courts, big time, beginning in August after the moratorium ends Saturday.
Evictions are not only a symptom of poverty but can cause poverty. Consequences of evictions include homelessness, downward mobility, job loss, court records that hurt credit and prevent being able to rent again, and numerous harmful consequences for children, who may have to leave their schools and friends. The uncertainty of eviction can be traumatic. Why do we inflict these consequences on people who have found themselves unable to pay rent through no fault of their own?
Here is what Arkansas for Stronger Communities urges Arkansas courts to do in eviction or failure-to-vacate cases:
- If the tenant has not applied for rent assistance because they are unaware it exists (and research shows a significant number of tenants nationwide do not know they can get aid), continue the case while the tenant applies.
- If the tenant has applied but gave up with the application still incomplete (this is the case with many tenants; most governments and third-party providers don't reach out to them), continue the case if the tenant agrees to complete the application process.
- If the tenant has a pending rent-assistance application, continue the case until assistance is granted or denied.
- If the tenant has applied for rent assistance and received it, but the landlord won't accept it, allow the tenant to stay till the end of the lease term, and if the term is month-to-month, allow the tenant six months to find another place, and deny the landlord damages for past-due rent.
If you are a tenant who receives an eviction summons, read the paperwork carefully. In most cases you will need to respond to the court within five days. Do so. Try to get help from Legal Services if you can't afford an attorney. Most landlords are represented by attorneys, but most tenants are not, and studies show that having an attorney is the best advantage a tenant can have.
Arkansans for Stronger Communities urges every Arkansas voter to call the governor's office at (501) 682-2345, and request that the governor declare an eviction moratorium statewide and loosen restrictions on rent assistance until the pipeline of federal money, which is ultimately our money, starts flowing freely to tenants and landlords.
This failure of government is a disgrace to our state. We can and must do better.
Lynn Foster is a law professor emeritus from the UA Little Rock Bowen School of Law, and president of Arkansans for Stronger Communities. The views expressed here are her own.