Health Metro Louisville

It’s the first of the month and the rent is due for thousands of families in Kentucky.

Many, though, may struggle to pay that bill this month. The spreading COVID-19 pandemic has led to the shuttering of scores of business, sparking layoffs and furloughs.

Renters make up about 33 percent of Kentucky’s 1.7 million households, according to data from the Metropolitan Housing Coalition. The rate is slightly higher in Jefferson County, where renters account for about 38 percent of households. The median rent in Jefferson County was $800 in 2018.

Government response to the coronavirus is providing some protections for people who may be at risk of missing a rent payment. The Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice issued an order last month delaying all eviction cases. Gov. Andy Beshear ordered last week suspending all evictions in Kentucky. And last week federal lawmakers passed the CARES Act, which prohibits landlords that participate in certain federally backed housing programs from filing an eviction.

On Wednesday, a new Supreme Court order went a step further and said courts will not accept new eviction filings at all until at least mid-May.

None of these actions relieve a renter from their responsibility to pay their rent when it is due. In fact, the governor’s order makes clear that rent must still be paid.

“If you can pay rent, pay rent,” said Ben Carter, the senior litigation and advocacy counsel for the Kentucky Equal Justice Center.

But Carter suspects many will not be able to pay their rent.

The pandemic has led government officials to force many businesses to close and it has dealt a troubling blow to the nation’s economy. For those that cannot pay, Carter said they should be transparent with their landlord and try to work out a payment plan.

“We expect many landlords will treat tenants fairly and with compassion in these truly extraordinary times,” Carter said.

Some, though, will not.

Carter said he has received reports of landlords attempting to illegally remove tenants during the pandemic.

An illegal eviction includes any attempt from a landlord to remove a tenant or their belongings from a property without a proper court order — this includes shutting off utilities, Carter said.

People who are subjected to an illegal eviction may be entitled a reward of up to three months rent and other fees, Carter said. He said anyone dealing with such an issue should attempt to document any interaction with their landlord and contact an attorney.

Despite Beshear’s moratorium on evictions, landlords could still file for eviction in court until Wednesday’s revision. In Jefferson County, nearly 400 evictions were filed since the Supreme Court delayed eviction case hearings, according to data provided by the Jefferson Circuit Court Clerk.

Any new filing will take months to be processed through court. Tenants who receive notice that their landlord is beginning eviction proceedings should not let fear cause them to move out, said Stewart Pope, advocacy director for the Legal Aid Society of Louisville.

Pope stressed that all eviction orders are currently suspended due to the governor’s order.

“Tenants should immediately call the police if someone arrives to set them out,” he said.

Carter believes that any landlord threatening eviction during the pandemic is just trying to intimidate a tenant into moving out.

“That’s just not what we need to be doing right now,” he said.

Instead, he encouraged any landlord feeling financial pressure to seek out forgivable loan programs and other government assistance.

“The important message I want renters to hear is if you cannot pay rent, don’t leave your house,” Carter said. “It’s just not safe for most people to be leaving their houses.”

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.