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Bill That Would Establish Arkansas Habitability Standards Passes House Committee

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Arkansas House
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A bill that would establish statewide housing standards for rented properties in Arkansas passed its first legislative hurdle on Wednesday.

The House Insurance and Commerce committee, by a vote of 11-6, advanced an amended version of House Bill 1563, which would establish a warranty of habitability for landlords who own more than four properties in the state. 

Under the bill, landlords would be required to "maintain habitable premises" which would include having hot and cold running water, "reasonable" waterproofing and weather protection on the roof and exterior walls, and having working locks on all exterior doors.

Additionally, landlords would not be able to retaliate against tenants who complain to a governmental agency about a code violation. 

Arkansas is the only state in the United States to not have a warranty of habitability for rented properties , with previous legislative attempts failing to establish one in Arkansas.

Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, who first presented the bill in committee last week, brought an amended and scaled-down version before the committee Wednesday. 

He said some changes were made after speaking with legislators and landlords who had concerns about the bill, including the change that if tenants are behind on their rent, they would not be entitled to any remedies.

"I understand that position because I think the thought is, it’s quite audacious for someone to say, who hasn’t paid their rent in several months, to say 'Hey, why don’t you come over here and fix this for me?' And from a landlord’s perspective, I can see 'Well why don’t you pay your rent? If you paid your rent maybe I’d have the money to fix what you’d like to have fixed,'" Gazaway said.

Two people spoke in favor of the bill, while three spoke against it, and one spoke on the bill itself without taking a position on it. Mark Burrier with the Faulkner County Landlords Association spoke against the bill.

"I think there’s a misconception on the fairness of this bill to keep it fair between the tenant and the landlord, if so much is put more on the landlord’s side to defend himself," Burrier said.

Also speaking against the bill was Sylvester Smith, an attorney who represents landlords. He asked the committee to consider the current COVID-19 pandemic and the burden it is currently placing on landlords.

"Tenants have had lots of help. They’ve had $4,000 a month unemployment. They’ve had rental assistance programs funded by the federal government. Landlords have had very little help, and I can tell you, due to the CDC eviction [moratorium], efforts by individual judges to slow evictions, there are landlords that haven’t seen rent in a year," Smith said.

Caleb Alexander-McKenzie with Arkansans for Stronger Communities spoke on the need for habitability standards in the state, saying being the last state in the union to implement such a policy has "set up a pipeline to homelessness."

"We talk about tenants being able to look into a place to see whether or not they can live there, whether or not it will meet their standards. When your standards are life and death, you have nothing to meet. When your standards are freezing to death on cold nights, you have no standard to meet. When your standards are lack of shade, lack of shelter, you have no standard to meet," McKenzie said.

The bill now goes to the full House for a vote.

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