An eviction intervention program in Arkansas is helping keep low-income renters from losing their homes. Led by Arkansas Renters United, the effort involves gathering eviction information online and using grassroots outreach to connect with renters in danger of eviction.
Arkansas Renters United (ARU) is a project of Arkansas Community Organizations. ARU works to mobilize individuals directly affected by substandard housing and speak out against cruel landlords. They also push to change the structure of landlord-tenant relations in Arkansas.
Local community organizations around the state contribute volunteers. The Young Democrats of Arkansas are a statewide group also involved in the initiative. They are doing both outreach and mailings. In areas with limited data, local partners also flag recent eviction filings in their communities.
According to Billy Cook of the Young Democrats of Arkansas, the state has the worst landlord-tenant laws in the country. Speaking on a May 10 webinar hosted by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), he said that the state does not even have a guarantee of habitability. This means that landlords are not required to maintain their properties to any health or safety code. Low-income renters often find themselves in unsafe homes with few legal protections.
Low-income renters have few protections against eviction in Arkansas. Even at the beginning of the eviction process, low-income renters face major challenges. If renters do not respond to an eviction summons within five days, they automatically lose their case and face eviction.
Evictions have risen in Arkansas every month during the pandemic through at least October. In September 2020, there were 537 filings across the state, compared with 451 filings in September 2019. Many renters have lost their cases because they did not know about the national eviction moratorium ordered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
How does ARU find and reach renters at risk of eviction?
Arkansas eviction courts enter filings into a publicly accessible database. The database covers much, although not all, of the state. ARU monitors the database. Partner organizations provide filing information from areas of the state not covered by the database.
Volunteers prepare mailing packets. Since there are no state eviction protections, the packets focus on renters knowing their rights under the CDC national eviction moratorium. The CDC order says that low-income renters cannot be evicted only because of nonpayment of rent. Renters can still be evicted for other reasons, like damage to property or criminal activity.
Most importantly, renters must provide declaration forms to their landlords in order to be protected by the CDC moratorium. The mailing packets contain copies of the CDC declaration form and instructions on filling them out and getting them to landlords.
Since there is only a short window for Arkansas renters to respond to an eviction summons, it is very important that they get their CDC declarations done as quickly as possible. Without outreach from ARU’s volunteers and partners, many renters would not be protected from eviction.
Speaking to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette last October, Ely Frankly of ARU said that on her first visit to a complex, most residents “do not know about it at all.” Lawyers from Legal Aid of Arkansas and the Center for Legal Services have noted that when tenants get a signed CDC declaration to their landlords, that is often enough to halt the eviction.
Volunteers also take the mailing packets out directly to the addresses listed in the state’s database. ARU has found it is more effective when they reach people in person. When they cannot reach someone at home, they leave information packets for the residents. Packets are sent by mail to addresses in parts of the state not yet covered by volunteers from partner organizations.
On the NLIHC webinar, ARU’s Malik Marshall said that the program has been “extremely effective.” Most of the time, volunteers are reaching renters even before they have received their formal eviction summons. Since last February, as the pandemic was just beginning, they have intervened in almost 500 cases.
Every state has different laws around evictions. In many states, it is not easy to get information on current eviction cases. This initiative in Arkansas highlights how grassroots connections and access to technology can help low-income renters stay safe during the pandemic.