Wednesday, March 09, 2005

EDITORIAL>> Committee favors slumlord protection

“Tenants have very few rights under current Arkansas law.”

That is the opening line of an informational Web site on landlord-tenant law operated by the Arkansas attorney general. It spells out what those “limited” rights are. All the rights are on the side of the landlord. But someone worries that the Arkansas Supreme Court, in some case involving a particularly heinous disregard of a renter’s safety or dignity, will one day decide that a renter may actually own some inalienable rights that aren’t spelled out in the statutes and hold a landlord liable for what he has done.

Naturally, the Arkansas legislature cannot let that happen. State Rep. Robert Thompson of Paragould filed a bill to put the matter clearly into the law: A landlord is never to be liable for what happens to tenants unless the landlord chooses to assume liability or refuses to make a repair that he had promised to make.

It is the Slumlord Protection Act of 2005. The House of Representatives on Monday passed it 62 to 24 with another 13 who were conscience-stricken enough to vote “present.” The Senate will vote shortly.

Even a couple of landlords on the Senate Judiciary Committee were bothered by the nakedness of the self-interest and greed. Sen. Mary Anne Salmon of North Little Rock, a landlord, said the bill would guarantee the protection of slum landlords whose greed and carelessness put tenants in danger. She recalled the recent incident in which 60 residents of a mobile home park in Little Rock had their natural gas service cut off in the dead of winter when the owner would not repair leaks in pipes to the homes.

The city relocated the tenants to get them out of the cold. Thompson’s bill would see that the owner was never held liable.

Sen. Irma Hunter Brown represents a part of Little Rock rife with slum rental dwellings.

“I am concerned that too many times, especially in the urban areas, we have landlords that have just deplorable situations,” Brown said. “It is awful to even rent some of these properties to people. To allow that kind of landlord not to have any liability is just something that I can’t conscionably sit here and support.” That sort of argument doesn’t work.

There is a wordless doctrine that seems to prevail in the halls where law is made, that it is the mission of the elected to preserve and strengthen the advantages held by the powerful and the propertied.

The framers had in mind that they might make a place for justice, too.