States like Tennessee and Kentucky are inconsistent in how they apply laws intended to protect landlords and renters. States like Arkansas apply uniform laws, but offer fewer protections for renters. What’s better? We asked the legal experts.
By Eva Herinkova and Gabriela Szymanowska
A simple drive across a county line in Tennessee can be a game-changer for renters and landlords.
Depending on the size of the county, different laws govern renters and landlords. In counties with a population over 75,000 (only nine of Tennessee’s states), residents are protected by the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (URLTA). URLTA was created to stabilize renting laws by having a consistent system within the state and specifically to provide protection in urban areas.
But that means 86 counties don’t apply URLTA laws – the most rural counties with the highest poverty rates — leaving both renters and landlords more vulnerable.
“Because the whole housing law is less codified, it’s less structured,” George Shields, an attorney at Legal Aid of East Tennessee, said. “Often housing relationships are more informal so, whereas you’ll see a lot of written leases in a URLTA county, in a common law county you might have verbal leases or sort of unspoken leases, family relationships.”
In 2016, Tennessee was ranked 20 in the United States for evictions, with more than 19,000 that year, according to the data from Eviction Lab at Princeton University.
Click on counties to move map and see details.
Kentucky, another state that inconsistently applies its laws, was ranked 18 with an eviction rate of 2.91 percent, higher than the estimated national eviction rate of 2.34 percent.
The eviction rankings paint only a partial picture, however, because it is so much harder to collect data from rural counties where there are not many formal renting agreements.
Mark Esterle, attorney with Kentucky Legal Aid in Bowling Green in Barren County, explained how different jurisdictions apply URLTA throughout the state.
“In Kentucky, the legislature allows the city and counties to adopt Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act as long as they adopt it in whole, they can’t adopt it in part. So, a lot of the state of Kentucky does not have a Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act,” Esterle said.
Gwendolyn Horton, attorney at Kentucky Legal Aid Society in Louisville, KY said that URLTA should be applied statewide.
“As a defense attorney, I believe it would be great for the tenants’ protection if it was adopted by all 120 counties because it gives people additional protections,” Horton said. “It’s a situation where the landlord, of course, has mortgage payments to pay and so forth, but people still need to be given proper notices because it could be a mistake. It gives people time to work out a payment plan with their landlord because a lot of our clients, especially our clients that get government assistance, if they’re evicted then their next situation is being homeless.”
Having uniform laws is not a panacea. In Arkansas, the Residential Landlord Tenant Act is consistently applied statewide, but provides few protections for tenants.
What we have is a legal scheme that has a lot of obligations on tenants …
“They basically gutted the Uniform Act,” said Amy Pritchard, a law professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock who specializes in housing and evictions. “What we have is a legal scheme that has a lot of obligations on tenants and the only obligation for landlords is a security deposit return statute.”
Arkansas is the only state in the country that does not have an implied warranty of habitability statewide and one of 10 states that allows retaliatory evictions.
Without an implied warranty of habitability, landlords do not have any responsibility to fix issues with their property as long as it meets the standard requirements of building codes, but even building codes are a duty that landlords can easily avoid.
“They only have to follow those requirements to the extent that code will enforce them,” explains Pritchard. “If a tenant does call code in Arkansas, there’s no protection from retaliations.”
Retaliatory eviction in Arkansas means that a tenant can be evicted at any time for any reason. The only stipulation is that if there is a written lease then the term of the lease has finished.
Although the renting laws in Arkansas are uniform, there are still fewer protections for evictees than in the jurisdictions that adhere to URLTA.
The application of URLTA statewide would appear to be the best option for everyone, because while renters seem to be the most vulnerable during the eviction process, both tenants and landlords would benefit from the additional protections.