Renters have few rights in Arkansas

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WEST MEMPHIS, Ark.  -- Crime, unsanitary conditions, and even bed bugs have several MidSouth residents fed up with the living conditions at their apartment complex.

The On Your Side Investigators discovered their complaints represent a pattern of problems in Arkansas regarding renters' rights.

Jason Auer of Legal Aid of Arkansas talked with the On Your Side Investigators about a West Memphis apartment complex where tenants say the place was infested with bed bugs.

"Tenants are basically afraid to go to bed at night," Auer said.

"I'd wake up and I'd be itching," one resident told WREG.

Auer said, "It's very tough to get a good night's sleep when you know that when you turn the lights out there are icky little creatures that are going to come out and feed upon you."

Auer says those are the kind of complaints his office repeatedly got about the Westwood Apartments on Avalon.

"It's pretty uncontroversial at this point there's a bed bug infestation there," he said.

"Something was biting me and I called to the office and asked them could they send someone out here," one tenant said.

She says her problems with bed bugs started in 2013.  The issue now is that she's still stuck with a pest control bill for more than $1,700.

"I was like, I can't believe they trying to make me pay this," the Westwood resident said.

Health experts say it's typically difficult to pinpoint the origin of bed bugs. However, the tenant WREG spoke with says she knows she wasn't alone.

"The whole building over there, y'all treated that whole building and didn't nobody have to pay," the woman, who also claims management never informed her about the costs in advance, said.

She also says she saw mattresses and furniture tossed out with the words "bed bugs" spray painted on them.

"They had stuff all on the side of the road, that people, that had bed bugs," she said.

The On Your Side Investigators obtained a copy of another resident's pest control contract. The price tag for bed bug treatment was more than $800.

Auer said, "They're low-income tenants, they're on fixed incomes, they don't have the financial means to pay for this treatment."

WREG visited the office at Westwood Apartments.  A woman who identified herself as a new property manager says she wasn't aware of any complaints about bed bugs or subsequent bills.

An executive for the company that previously managed the property admitted there were several tenants who had problems with bed bugs, even as late as 2014, but said, "Only those residents who caused the infestation were charged."

According to Auer, though, the bed bug issue at Westwood represents a bigger problem in Arkansas, which is that renters have very few rights.

"Arkansas is the only state in the nation that does not have a warranty of habitability," Auer said.

That means Arkansans don't have basic rights related to safe and sanitary living conditions, nor are landlords obligated to fix repairs.

Arkansas is also the only state where tenants can get thrown in jail for not paying rent.

Representative Greg Leding of Fayetteville plans to introduce legislation this session to address the issue of that implied warranty of habitability.

"You hear from tenants who are concerned about the conditions where they're living, and a lot of times you're talking about working families who are focused on their jobs and their kids," he said about the complaints his office gets.

He says the bill would put measures in place that good landlords are already using.

"Just making sure that the premises are safe, that tenants have the landlord's basic contact information, that tenants are aware of who the landlord uses to maintain the premises," Leding said.

Similar legislation never got off the ground or run through committee two years ago.

Rep. Leding says there's already bi-partisan support. He also told WREG lawmakers have gotten input from landlords and realtors.

At this point, Auer says he's just hoping Westwood will do right by its tenants.

"We'd like to see the complex implement a real plan for addressing bed bugs that's not going to fall on the tenant's lap in terms of paying for it," he said.

The tenant told WREG, "I just hope they can resolve this and get if fixed because they're just constantly sending me bills."

After WREG'S interviews and getting a letter from Legal Aid, the previous property management company agreed to drop those fees the tenants were charged for bed bug removal.

While Leding's bill would only address the implied warranty of habitability, there could also be changes to the law that allows landlords to have tenants thrown in jail for not paying rent.

A Pulaski County judge recently threw out a case, calling the statute unconstitutional.