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AR Groups Keep Fighting for Those Who Fall Behind on Rent

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Friday, October 7, 2022   

Groups challenging the criminal consequences for failing to pay rent in Arkansas say they'll take another run at it, perhaps as a class-action lawsuit, after their initial case was dismissed.

Arkansas is the only state that treats nonpayment of rent as a criminal offense instead of a civil debt, and a nonprofit that provides free legal services contends that is unconstitutional.

Phil Telfeyan, who heads the group Equal Justice Under Law, said the goal of the suit was to end the law - and now, more work must be done.

"There's the Legislature that is trying to repeal the law, which we are extremely supportive of," he said. "But there's also a court challenge - there's a litigation process that is still under way - that federal courts have the authority, if a law is unconstitutional, to strike it down."

Telfeyan added that the consequences of the law are more dire since the federal moratorium on evictions has ended. And earlier this year, Arkansas declined most of the $146 million made available in federal Emergency Rental Assistance. Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the state hadn't spent all the previous allotment, and cited a strong economy and job market as reasons for rejecting the funds.

Equal Justice Under Law filed the suit in 2021 with the University of Arkansas' Little Rock Bowen Legal Clinic. Telfeyan said some landlords are willing to work with tenants who fall behind on rent, either by negotiating a reduced payment or some flexibility. But his organization has seen just as many property owners who won't work with their renters.

"One of Equal Justice Under Law's clients was unable to pay rent, not through any fault of their own, but actually because of the landlord's error," he said. "The landlord had a problem with the plumbing and so our client was not able to use the restroom, the toilet, the shower and so forth - they had to pay extra money to shower elsewhere. And that landlord actually started a criminal proceeding."

As the legal challenges continue, he encouraged renters to let their voices be heard, including contacting their legislators.


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