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    Cover photo: Sheriff's deputy Jon Pfeifer walks to an eviction in south Louisville in 2018  /  by William DeShazer

     

    It’s an efficient unraveling. In a matter of weeks — early March to April 1 — a global pandemic instigates a crisis in Tee’s 800-square-foot home that sits beneath a large shade tree in the Shawnee neighborhood in west Louisville. Her health is fine. But her rent is due. Tee (who didn’t want her full name used) works as a certified nursing assistant at a facility on an as-needed basis. Pre-coronavirus, she could rely on about 40 hours per week. But as the facility enacts strict measures to protect their vulnerable population, Tee’s duties, like leading a circle of patients through gentle exercises, disappear. Her hours are cut by more than half. In April, she’s short about $75 on her $555 monthly rent. 

    Tee, who is 40 years old and lives with a son who is in his 20s, pays what she can, hoping for compassion from her landlord of two years. There’s relief knowing that in March, Gov. Andy Beshear, followed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Kentucky in April, barred the filing and processing of evictions as the economy crumbled, unemployment claims ballooned and evicting in an era of “healthy at home” rang illogical, even heartless. But on a cloudy day in late May, she finds a folded letter in her mailbox — FINAL NOTICE. Her landlord (whom Tee did not want named out of fear of retaliation) had sent a notice saying she now owes him $125, a $50 fee tacked on to the original $75. At the bottom of the letter, one last handwritten line: You have 30 days to move if this is not paid.

    “I told him, ‘You’re not supposed to be doing this stuff right now,’” Tee recalls. “And he was like, ‘Well, everyone is having a hard time right now.’” Tee questions the legality of her landlord’s behavior, but she hasn’t talked to him since that conversation, and she’s too afraid to report him to Legal Aid or housing advocates.

    Right now, her landlord can’t take Tee to court and cue up the sheriff to pull belongings from her home. He can send a notice of late rent and hint at imminent eviction once protections lift. The late fee, though? That’s murky legal ground. In June, the Kentucky Equal Justice Center files a class action lawsuit against a landlord charging late fees and telling a single mother of four, unable to work due to childcare closures, that courts were accepting evictions during the pandemic. (The suit is class action because the landlord may have acted similarly with other tenants.) “I’m mad,” Tee says, referring to her landlord. “I feel like he’s harassing me.” Massachusetts, for example, has prohibited landlords from sending notices regarding late payments during the pandemic.

    “When people say, ‘Well, (no one) can be evicted’ — when you feel like your housing is threatened, when you feel like you won’t be in your house next month, (tenants) internalize that fear. With that level of stress sometimes the easiest thing to do is pick up and go,” says Clare Wallace, the executive director of South Louisville Community Ministries, a nonprofit that provides rental assistance. “We’re trying to say that’s not the best option.”

    Even before the pandemic, Louisville’s eviction rate was nearly double the national average. According to data from the Metropolitan Housing Coalition, eviction rates (as well as LG&E disconnections) are highest in largely Black neighborhoods in west and southwest Louisville. By early summer, it’s estimated that up to 24,000 households, or 20 to 30 percent of renters in Jefferson County, owe rent — about double the county’s normal delinquency rate. (In June, the National Multi-Family Housing Council reports that 19 percent of renters nationwide have fallen behind on payments.)

    Tee has been through an eviction before. She knows how they linger and haunt. After an eviction in 2018, she spent months on a friend’s couch, showering at a nearby Planet Fitness before work because she couldn’t find a landlord willing to rent to her with an eviction on her record. For Christmas that year, she, her son and her then-19-year-old daughter spent the holiday in a hotel.

     

    Beshear’s ban on evictions for nonpayment of rent will end. It’s just not clear when. It will last “for the duration” of the governor’s state-of-emergency order, according to a spokesperson. That could mean the end of July, August, maybe longer. Whenever it is, “I believe we are going to see a huge number of evictions,” says Marilyn Harris, director of the Office of Housing for Louisville Metro Government. And Harris worries that more evictions could lead to more homelessness. Many housing advocates believe the surge in evictions could end up causing more damage to communities than the 2008 foreclosure crisis.

    Still, some landlords itch to press ahead, frustrated or maybe confused by the months-long pause. The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office gets calls nearly every day: Can you all set people out yet? For two months, the answer — no. But in late May, a surprise move by the Kentucky Supreme Court reversed their previous order and granted that, as of June 1, landlords could file evictions for issues other than nonpayment, like lease violations or excessive damage to property. 

    The move angered advocates like Cathy Hinko, executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition. In a letter to Kentucky Supreme Court chief justice John D. Minton, Hinko wrote, “Given the disparate negative impact of evictions on the black community in Louisville, to now allow eviction for ‘other than non-payment of rent’ risks the lives of Louisville’s black community much more so than the white community. These exemptions should be as necessary to public welfare as the moratorium is to public health. Yet they are not.”

    In normal times, tenants sardine into a courtroom on the third floor of the Hall of Justice downtown for eviction court. Amidst a pandemic, court has relocated to Zoom or conference call. Attorneys for landlords wait in queue for their case, as do some tenants, but not all. On a recent Monday morning, the presiding judge announces that none of the residential evictions on her docket is due to nonpayment. By the first week of July, the sheriff’s office has four evictions set on the calendar, with more slowly trickling in.

     

    Roughly 121,000 households in Louisville pay rent. Median rent is about $800. From 2016 to 2018, the eviction-filing rate for all of Louisville was about 14 percent, according to the Metropolitan Housing Coalition. Some neighborhoods like Russell, Smoketown and an area south of Pleasure Ridge Park had evictions filed against about 20 percent of renters. (In the California neighborhood, the rate was 26 percent.) Not all these filings end in eviction. Some are dismissed. Some tenants opt to leave before the eviction winds its way through the court and onto their record. According to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, which collects and analyzes eviction data, close to 6,000 households were evicted in Jefferson County in 2016. 

    From early to late March, before the halt in evictions, just more than 350 were filed, according to court records. They now sit backlogged, awaiting the release valve. Art Crosby, executive director the Lexington Fair Housing Council, says that, once courts start processing evictions for nonpayment (after the moratorium finally lifts), those idle cases will cause the first major rush. “Part two is the people who have been displaced from jobs, and those people are more likely to be renters,” Crosby says, adding that renters who pay $750 or less per month are the ones struggling the most, many of them working in the struggling service and retail sector. 

     

    It was back in mid-March that Louisville residents folded inward, barely surfacing but for food, booze and cleaning supplies. The economy buckled, giving way to a crushing need for assistance. The city’s first response was the One Louisville: COVID-19 Response Fund, a pot of private donations that would swell to nearly $3 million, the money a necessity for those who were losing income due to COVID-19. (Louisville Magazine publisher Matthew Barzun helped lead the fund.) To qualify, households had to earn 100 percent of area median income — about $76,000 for a family of four — or less, as well as proving a hit in income due to COVID-19. 

    By March 19, phones at the seven Neighborhood Place locations started ringing nonstop — as many as 500 calls a day at certain locations, just two employees in each building racing to keep up. The demand was so great that librarians and youth-services employees were recruited for duty. “It was literally: ‘Give me your name and phone number, I’ll call you back,’” recalls Cassandra Miller, manager of the Neighborhood Place.

    One housing advocate who works with families in west Louisville says she talked with about 70 households trying to get assistance through One Louisville. Only one successfully made an appointment and secured aid. As of mid-June, according to the city, 2,143 households had received assistance of up to $1,000 each. More than 40 percent needed money for rent, hundreds asked for help buying food and many couldn’t afford their bills. On July 14, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting noted that, according to spokespeople, more than 11,400 households had fallen behind on their bill with the Louisville Water Co, and almost 23,000 were late on LG&E bills. Both utilities are still holding off on shutoffs.

    South Louisville Community Ministries experienced a 40 percent increase in people reaching out for help this past spring. In the month of April alone, the agency helped 373 households, nearly 68 percent of which reported job loss. Wallace, the executive director, says the average amount needed to cover housing in April was $955, and clients, on average, only had about $64 in hand. “The unemployment insurance piece is huge,” Wallace says. Though unemployment claims have started slowing, 900,000 Kentuckians had filed for unemployment by June. And, according to WDRB, tens of thousands had still not received checks. 

     

    Landlords just want to get paid. Many are willing to work out a payment plan; in the long run, that’s often less of a hit, as an eviction can wind up leaving them without rent for two or three months. “The last thing we want to do is see people get put out of their home,” says JD Carey, executive director of the Louisville Apartment Association. “But we have landlords who may not be receiving rent and they’re struggling. Many have a manager and maintenance staff for properties. They have to meet that payroll to meet the needs of the tenants.” Smaller mom-and-pop landlords, some of whom may rely on a rental for income, are also scrambling, trying to figure out how to keep up with their mortgage.

    Recently allocated federal dollars may help, in the form of grants and distributions from the pandemic-relief bill called the CARES Act. In Louisville, more than $22 million is slated to assist thousands of households with rent assistance. Low-income families earning $45,000 for a family of four or less are the priority, eligible to receive up to three months’ rent. Landlords may apply for assistance on behalf of their tenants with the city’s Office of Housing. (More than $5 million from a separate allocation of federal dollars will go toward other programs, such as homeless services and small-business loans.)

    In a special budget hearing in June, Mary Ellen Wiederwohl, chief of Louisville Forward, emphasized the need to set up a process that will quickly get ahead of a “steep rise” in tenants facing eviction. She said she’s particularly worried about a rising delinquency rate come late summer. Since late March, the federal government has paid an extra $600 per week in unemployment benefits. That disappears at the end of this week. And at the end of this month, the CARES Act ban on evictions for tenants behind on rent in public and Section 8 housing, or any dwelling with a mortgage backed by the federal government (e.g., Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, FHA), will also expire. A spokesperson for the Louisville Metro Housing Authority says the agency is working on several eviction prevention and rent relief programs to try and avoid mass evictions. 

    As Kentucky marches ahead with reopening the economy, there’s concern over when Beshear will lift his eviction moratorium. In June, the Coalition for the Homeless and other advocacy groups wrote a letter to the governor, pushing him for a long-term extension. “We urgently implore you to promise Kentuckians that you will not allow landlords to evict anyone for nonpayment prior to August 24th at the very earliest, or the date (after Aug. 24) on which you can confidently tell Kentuckians that no one will face an eviction as a result of delays in getting their unemployment benefits.” 

    In many cities — Louisville included — a handful of activists have advocated for canceling rent altogether. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a democrat from Minnesota, recently introduced a rent- and mortgage-cancelation act in Congress. It would erase due payments during the COVID-19 national emergency and lean on government relief dollars to fill that gap. (Grim chance of the bill ever surviving a GOP-controlled Senate.)

    Carey, with the Louisville Apartment Association, says his organization continues to encourage tenants to seek financial assistance. “Everything I’ve put out I’ve said, ‘Talk to your landlord, explain your situation,’” he says. “Everybody is willing to help in this pandemic. But rent was due; it’s not forgiven.”

     

    With her hours cut, Tee has been sewing masks for extra cash. Her son is helping with bills. “I’m blessed,” she says, noting that she managed to cover her June rent. She says she borrowed money and paid the $75, reluctantly. “I’m like, ‘Why are you sending me a letter? I know there aren’t people paying you anything,’” she says. “I don’t know, maybe it’s just a scare tactic.” 

    Tee’s experience isn’t isolated. Shauntrice Martin is co-founder of Feed the West, a nonprofit focused on supplying groceries to west Louisville residents, and a loan officer with LHOME, an organization that offers affordable loans to primarily Black and immigrant Louisvillians. In those two roles, she has heard from about 20 anxious tenants. “I’ve gotten clients during the entire COVID crisis who’ve been threatened with eviction. Or they’ve had their AC cut off for retaliation after asking about late fees that (are being added) when they’re not supposed to be,” Martin says. “I’ve seen a lot of people who, as soon as they got that note from the landlord, they got scared and started working on moving out.” 

    The moratorium will lift. Tee’s landlord could file an eviction for nonpayment, maybe breach of contract, or simply not renew her lease, forcing her out. Landlords have the upper hand. She wants to stay in her home and on his good side. “It ain’t fair,” she says. “But I don’t want to get kicked out, you know, especially right now. There’s this virus going around.”

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