As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to inflict unprecedented economic devastation on Arkansans and our communities, this crisis is exposing one of the most glaring gaps in Arkansas’ notoriously weak social safety net: an eviction process that criminalizes poverty and favors landlords over renters. 

Arkansas is one of just a handful of states that has refused to take any action to prevent evictions during this crisis, a failure of leadership that is compounded by the fact that Arkansas is the only state in the country that makes failure to pay rent a crime. Arkansas is also the only state in the nation that does not require landlords to maintain safe, sanitary and fit premises for tenants to live in.

As courts move to reopen, a statewide moratorium on evictions is critical to preventing a wave of mass evictions that could force many vulnerable Arkansans from their homes at the worst possible time. 

Even as the state begins to reopen and social distancing measures help to flatten the curve of infections, the economic fallout from this crisis is just beginning. Forecasts predict that Arkansas’ unemployment rate will rise to 17 percent this summer, as hundreds of thousands of Arkansans will lose their jobs. 

This is the most severe economic downturn any of us have seen in our lifetimes, and it will deprive hundreds of thousands of people of their livelihoods through no fault of their own.

Unfortunately, instead of taking action to protect renters impacted by the crisis, Governor Asa Hutchinson has put his faith in the generosity of landlords. He recently stated that “Arkansans have been generous to one another in previous disasters and I believe they are doing the same under this emergency.” 

But eviction filings and news reports reveal that many landlords are not being as charitable as the governor suggests. According to an Arkansas Times investigation of Lindsey Management, the largest property management firm of apartment buildings in the state, some apartment managers are refusing to show any leniency towards renters who have been late in paying their May rent. And Lindsey Management is far from the only offender. A Springdale woman interviewed by the Arkansas Democrat Gazette was even evicted from her Allred Properties-managed apartment while recovering from COVID-19

The fact that vulnerable people are being kicked to the curb – and even being charged with a crime because they cannot afford their rent – offends our most deeply-held values. It is also counterproductive and harmful to both our economy and our health. 

Forcing people from their homes in the middle of a pandemic will worsen the economic dislocation and suffering this pandemic is already causing. Evictions traumatize families, destabilize communities, and make it harder for people to find stable housing in the future.

A mass eviction crisis will worsen our state’s already staggering racial disparities, because people of color are most vulnerable to eviction. According to eviction data analyzed by the ACLU, Black renters had evictions filed against them by landlords at nearly twice the rate of white renters on average.

Failing to stop evictions during this period is also dangerous for public health. At the very time public health experts are telling us that staying at home is critical to containing the virus, many people are being forced from the only home they have.

That is why a growing coalition of Arkansans is calling on Governor Hutchinson to immediately issue a comprehensive moratorium on evictions throughout the entire state. This moratorium should prohibit every stage of the eviction process and without exceptions for types of tenants or lease violations. It must also plan ahead for when the moratorium ends to prevent mass evictions and other enduring housing consequences for tenants hurt by the pandemic.

All Arkansans can agree that being poor is not a crime, and that forcing people from their homes during a pandemic will only make this crisis worse for everyone. 

For the health and well-being of all Arkansans, state officials must implement a comprehensive moratorium on evictions now.