Arkansas bill could help domestic violence victims get more rights as renters

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A slap, a bruise, the verbal torment. It's the ultimate betrayal at the hands of someone in your own home. But for many domestic violence victims this is just the beginning of their troubles.

Marquiepta Odom is a domestic violence survivor who now raises awareness about the problem. She told us of a woman who was worried her abuser could return to her home at any time, so she asked her landlord if she could break her lease early.

Odom says she wasn't expecting what happened next. She says the woman's landlord wanted to evict her then and there.

"Immediately the landlord had decided, in order to keep their property safe, they decided that they immediately did a termination on her."

While that's illegal under a 2016 Tennessee Law, Odom says you'd be surprised by how often it happens.

A proposed Arkansas bill would give domestic violence victims even more protections. HB 1538 would allow victims to break a lease with 60 days notice and avoid any early termination fees, provided they have documentation, like a police report or protection order.

It would also stop a landlord from evicting them before the 60 days runs out.

"This will give them another sense and a glimmer of hope that I can get out of this lease. And if I do need to go to a safe place, I can go there and not have this over my head," Odom said.

Many landlords are on board too.

Ann Rogers owns about 24 rental properties across Crittenden County and also serves as president of the Landlords Association of Arkansas. On the rare occasion a domestic violence victim has asked to be let out of their lease, Rogers says she's always been receptive to the idea.

"This is fair. I don't see any problems with it. Most landlords that are wanting to be good landlords are gonna work with their tenants."

HB 1538 would have simply made it law.

But after bipartisan support in the Arkansas House, and an endorsement from the Landlords Association, House Bill 1538 failed with 13 in favour and nine opposed.

The bill was also voted down in the Senate in April 2019.

"The way the bill is written is just not good at all for the property owner," Senator Jimmy Hickey said. Hickey, a landlord himself, tore into the bill before it went for a vote.

Among his concerns were confusions what counts as documentation when a victim is claiming abuse and fears that during the 60 days notice, landlords wouldn't be able to enforce other portions of the lease.

Lawmakers plan to reintroduce the bill during the next legislative session.

"For those victims of domestic violence in the next two years who may be seeing that kind of relief, to know that they're not going to be able to get it, that's a very concerning thing to me,"

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