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COPH Class Project on Health Impacts of No Renter Protections

Arkansas Renters Report PictureAs part of a class service learning project in the 2015 spring semester, students and their instructors at the UAMS Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health explored the relationship of housing conditions to human health and delved into the effects of Arkansas’ lack of law requiring landlords to maintain their properties at a minimum standard.

Arkansas is the only state in the country that does not have an implied warranty of habilitability, which means that landlords do not have to adhere to any standards unless they do so voluntarily.

Students who took part in the project say that they learned quite a bit from the activity. Kemmian Johnson, MPH, who graduated in spring 2015, said that the experience made him more aware of how housing affects health. Collecting survey data at the Arkansas Community Organizations (ACO) offices was what he found most meaningful. ACO was a partner on the project.

“I was able to interact with various Arkansas renters and gain insight about their awareness of the current landlord-tenant laws and unique experiences as tenants – and to see how housing conditions and physical, mental and emotional health are inextricably interwoven.”

For doctoral student Lakiesha Kemp, MA, the project made her reflect on her childhood and what her mother did to improve conditions of their rented home.

“Having grown up in a low-social economic community, my mother always made accommodations out of her pocket or made arrangements with our landlord to make our living conditions more habitable,” Mrs. Kemp recalled. “For some reason, as a child, it didn’t seem unfair or inequitable. The misfortune was in us not knowing that we didn’t have to pay to live under such conditions. We had rights that should have been met. Race or socio-economic class should not compromise what is considered fair housing conditions for renters.”

The results of research conducted by the students and their instructors were published in a report,“Out of Balance: Arkansas Renters Share their Experiences Navigating the State’s Unique Landlord-Tenant Laws.”

The project consisted of a survey of more than 1,100 Arkansas renters and interviews with five survey respondents. The purpose was to learn about the renters’ experiences with maintenance issues with their rental property, how problems were handled by their landlords, and any health effects stemming from the condition of their housing.

Instructors for the course are Kate Stewart, MD, MPH, Creshelle Nash, MD, MPH, and Ashley Bachelder, MPH, MPS, CPH.

The students and others administered the survey at numerous sites in central Arkansas, including two offices of the ACO in Little Rock and Pine Bluff, churches, and two college campuses. One of the instructors conducted the five interviews.

Of all survey respondents, 32 percent reported having a problem with their landlord making repairs; the top three problems were plumbing, heating and cooling and pest or rodent control. Most had to ask their landlord repeatedly to make repairs, and more than a third of those with problems ended up moving. One-quarter of those who had a problem with their landlord said that they had a health problem that they attributed to the maintenance issue. These included increased stress, breathing problems, headaches, high blood pressure and bites or infections.

Those most likely to report problems with their landlords had less than a high school education or were Hispanic.

“[Hispanic] respondents also experienced verbal abuse and were threatened with eviction at significantly higher rates than non-Hispanic respondents … [and] moved more frequently, as a result,” the report stated.

The report notes that the findings of the study may not be representative of all Arkansas renters, because the survey data were collected through a non-random convenience sample and individuals self-selected to participate or not.

One student said that hearing what some renters experienced was hard for her, but that the final report serves a valuable purpose.

“At first, learning about the lack of tenant protections and how poor living conditions contribute to racial and ethnic health disparities in Arkansas left me feeling dismayed, like there was very little I could do as an individual,” said Jamie L. Jones, MSN, RN, CNE. “However, by participating in this project, I learned more about community action and how there is real strength in numbers. Working on something real gave me confidence in my own abilities to become a change agent.”

International student Tezel Lightbourne found the service learning project to be an eye-opener that confirmed course content about health disparities.

“I believe that the theories expounded upon during classroom lectures and reading materials regarding racial and ethnic health disparities were personified while serving at the ACO site,” Ms. Lightbourne said. “As an aspiring health professional dedicated to the health and well-being of all, as well as an international student having a unique viewpoint, I implore that this is something we cannot continue to ignore.”