LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) - It's been 10 years since the Great Recession took a crisis in the housing market and turned it into economic hard times for the entire United States.
The bailouts and recovery have literally altered how and where we live.
Here in Arkansas, it changed how many people get the American dream of a home with a monthly mortgage, while leading more people into the month-to-month cycle of paying landlords with rent checks. But Arkansas is not a state with a renter friendly environment. Our 11 News Investigation asks why that is and how to change that.
Let’s start by looking at how many people we are talking about: There are 17-million households across the Southwest region of Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. About 300,000 of those households are in Arkansas.
Two out of three of those households lives in a house that they own. That's mostly single-family houses, where they pay a mortgage or they own it outright. That leaves more than 100,000 people paying rent to a landlord, with two out of three them living in a single-family home. The balance lives in multi-family housing units like apartment complexes or duplexes. Arkansas does not have many of the latter and not many are planned. That's a problem for people without a lot of money.
“I can tell you it seems like things are pretty tight right now, especially for lower-income renters,” said Dustin Duke, an attorney with the Center For Arkansas Legal Services.
“There is a lack of affordable housing in the state,” said Jason Auer, another attorney with Legal Aid of Arkansas. “I think people who have very low incomes don't have as many options”
Both men specialize in representing low-income tenants. The numbers bear out what they hear from their clients. The rental sector is growing in central Arkansas with more people renting than two decades ago. The vacancy rate -- meaning the number of places for rent without someone living there -- is right around 9 percent. That's pretty low, and it reflects a problem for some.
“They're limited in some of their options,” Duke said. “It's supply and demand. If supply is really low, then they don't have a lot of options if they want to move around. There's not a lot of mobility. They're kind of stuck in a very narrow window as far as what they're options are.”
And demand is rising. Rental housing is being built where developers can get the best return on their investment. Overall, the average rent is $744 a month for a one-bedroom in the five-county central Arkansas region tracked by the federal government. New units are going into places with higher rents: West Little Rock, Downtown and up toward Conway.
In the middle of the city, especially south of Interstate 630, rents are less and developers avoided the area for a decade. This leaves many there stuck and often having to make the most of bad lease deals.
“It is frustrating [for a person] who has a legitimate issue and is having a hard time living in their apartment, then faces eviction on top of that just because they're trying to get some repairs made,” Auer said.
When disputes land in court, the playing field is uneven. Arkansas' housing laws are tilted heavily toward landlords over rental customers. It's something people like Auer and Duke have been working on changing one case at a time.
“Arkansas is the only state in the whole country that doesn't have a statewide minimum standard for rental units,” said Duke. “What that means is, if I'm a renter in the state of Arkansas, there's no guarantee that the place I rent is habitable. There's no guarantee that it will have a working air conditioner [in the summer] or heater in the winter. There's no guarantee that it doesn't have a roof that doesn't leak. There's no guarantee that it doesn't have a floor that's going to cave in on me.”
With no guarantees, some people can get trapped paying for a horrible, even unhealthy place to live. Part 2 of our 11 News Investigates series continues by meeting one unlucky renter who had to take a drastic step to get away, and how here in some parts of Arkansas, that can actually make her the criminal.