And Habitability and Residential Safety for All

Throughout college I paid for and lived in Hendrix College owned apartments. I enjoyed living there because if something happened, like the heating unit going out or any vermin moving in, it was taken care of quickly by our facilities department. I was so accustomed to this luxury that it came as a surprise to me when I learned during my senior year that the post college rental experience wasn’t like that.

I was co-president of our student congress team at Hendrix. In this competitive organization, we wrote legislation proposals and debated them with other colleges from the South at the state capital in Little Rock at a Senate floor debates. In 2014, one person on our team wrote a legislation proposal to restructure the tenant laws in Arkansas, as well as provide a path for a warrant of habitability. I had no clue what he was talking about. He went on to present page after page of research that outlined how terrible Arkansas’ tenant laws were for the renters. All of us living on campus, we didn’t have a personal stake in this discussion, but we did have an interest in it. When we took it to competition, we heard from other young adults who were living the experiences we researched: holes in walls exposing wires and dry wall, heaters that went out mid-January, scabies infestations that they shelled out hundreds of dollars to rid themselves of despite the problem being inherent to the entire apartment building. If a tenant decided to protest these problems that should and would reasonably fall under the responsibilities of the landlord to provide a habitable rental space, they would face criminal charges in Arkansas (despite all other 49 states declaring theses disputes to be civil matters). It made my skin crawl just thinking about it.

So of course when Jonesboro began to discuss property maintenance codes, I was all ears. Would this finally ensure that Arkansan tenants would finally receive a guarantee they could live in a habitable place? As soon as I could, I downloaded the proposed code and began to parse through it, comparing it to national standards and implemented codes in other states. I read the 2012 J-Quad Study that revealed the majority of poorly and inadequately maintained properties were overwhelmingly rental properties, confirming that lack of habitability standards does disproportionately affect renters. I was really excited to see Jonesboro take a step in a more positive direction by finally addressing systemic issues. When a coalition of landlords (with already pending complaints from tenants) and others wary of what this code could mean for privacy rights resisted, I was discouraged. It seemed like Jonesboro was destined not to lead the way for property and tenant rights reformation after all. This wasn’t about a pretty yard for me; this was about ensuring that everyone who pays rent for a property can do so with the knowledge that there are both tenant responsibilities, but also landlord responsibilities.

This kind of thought process is built into the code as well. Officers are not going to patrol the city with a yardstick to measure grass or a checklist of things to look for adhered to the dash of their vehicles. It is a complaint driven code, which means legitimate concerns must be brought by citizens of Jonesboro. Think of it like a noise ordinance- officers aren’t sitting at every street corner with an ear trumpet, but if you call in to report a booming party at 1:00 a.m., they will look into it. By having a system like this, it allows for the people of Jonesboro to self-check and use the JPD judiciously.

To be perfectly honest, a code such as the one proposed by the committee appointed by Mayor Perrin seemed like common sense. But I know that not everyone has the same thought process or list of priorities as myself- and that is okay. I wanted to know what other concerns were out there that created resistance to a property maintenance code. So I did what I do best- I dove into the online world and read the concerns people listed. Among the top were “Would Code Enforcement Officers enter my house without my permission”, “Why is the interior included in the code- that’s no one else’s business”, “What if I can’t afford the repairs at this time”, and “I don’t rent or own rental property, why should I care.” I am going to address these question by question because all should be fully addressed.

Code Enforcement Officers Entering Your Home without Permission:

This will not and cannot happen. The property maintenance code, in every iteration, had never allowed for C.E.O’s to enter your residence without permission. This code, like every other maintenance code in the United States (as most cities have one), preserves and respects the constitutional rights of the citizens of Jonesboro. The “Right to Entry” clause included in this code is a carbon copy of six other building codes in Jonesboro. No citizen has ever had their property rights compromised. And think about it- in order for a search warrant to even be issued for an inspection, there has to be a complaint about the interior of the property. In order for this complaint to even be considered, it has to come from somebody who lives inside the house. In short, you would have to complain about the interior of your own residence to even obtain notice by Code Enforcement.

Why Include the Interior:

This heralds back to my personal interest: the health and safety of tenants/residents. In a recent study out of UAMS College of Public Health it was noted that 32 of every 100 tenants had legitimate maintenance complaints to their landlords. Of those 32 legitimate complaints, half were addressed. This tells me two things. The first is not every landlord is terrible. I can’t stress that enough. Passing this code isn’t saying landlords are slumlords and terrible people. Look at those numbers- 68% of landlords had everything up to code and another 16% tried to address problems to the best of their abilities. 84% are doing their job and handling their responsibilities. But that 16% is a number that needs to be reduced because while I refer to “tenants” throughout this post, I am talking about people. Living, breathing, human beings who are relying on having a home that doesn’t impose unnecessary implications of harm.

What if I Can’t Afford the Repairs?

A new organization “Build Up Jonesboro!” is in place to help those who find the repairs unaffordable. As a 501(c)3, this organization will work with neighborhood associations, churches, other associations, and the city to try to coordinate assistance and provide funds to residents.

If landlords find repairs to be unaffordable or impossible, it may be necessary for them to consider selling their properties. I know that is a difficult decision, but let me expound upon something: landlords have responsibilities. Part of those responsibilities are to understand that if properties are used to create revenue like a business, they will be treated like a business. Buying any type of property and renting it is always a gamble- sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn’t. But if it doesn’t and you can’t afford to do it anymore, you shouldn’t put others at risk by not admitting that. Constantly I hear about how younger generations have no sense of responsibility and look for easy ways out, but that same rhetoric applies to wanting to keep an uninhabitable property and cut corners in responsibilities of the landlord.

If you find that you can no longer sustain your rental properties, you aren’t alone either. There are several resources that you can reach out to for assistance in not only making this decision, but transitioning as well. This code isn’t about barging in homes and taking land- there are absolutely no provisions for that. It is about making places safe for people to live.

I Don’t Rent, Why Should I Care?

Right away I could say that you should care because the community of Jonesboro should strive to care for one another. But I do acknowledge that it could be hard to care for others when you feel your rights are being neglected, which is in part why I wrote this post. I want others to understand that this is not in place to infringe on privacy rights- there are no provisions to do that. No one will come into your home uninvited, no one will tell you your house has to be a certain color, and no one will stealthily scope out your home looking for a possible infraction. Not only does this code provide for non-renters by ensuring increased property value due to external maintenance, but it also stimulates economic gains for all by encouraging new industries to move into the city.

 

I said at the beginning of all this that different priorities are okay and that is still true. But in a city whose seal promotes “People-Pride-Progress”, it is time to prioritize people and progress to ensure pride in our city.

jonesboro seal

For more information, please feel free to reach out at:

Citizens for a Better Jonesboro: https://www.facebook.com/Citizens-for-a-Better-Jonesboro-501796306658960/?fref=nf;

J-Cure: https://jcure2015.wordpress.com/;

or, feel free to attend a city council meeting if you are available or read the agenda and minutes on Jonesboro’s city website.

 

 

 

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