Investigations

Jhala Fisher needed cash. Demand for home health aides crashed during the pandemic, and by May she had been laid off. 

Fisher, a 26-year-old in Louisville, says she couldn’t attend job interviews. She didn’t have enough money for gas. She started selling her blood plasma just to keep the lights on.

By November, Fisher owed $2,994 in rent, and her landlord refused to accept partial payments. “I couldn’t help but to think how the heck I was going to be able to pay all of that upfront, in a lump sum,” she said. 

Her landlord went to court to evict her.

There’s supposed to be a safety net to catch distressed tenants like Fisher. Nearly $300 million in federal money is available for Kentuckians who are behind on their rent or utilities due to the pandemic. Earlier this month, Gov. Andy Beshear pleaded with Kentuckians to apply. “That is money that is waiting there to help people get through this pandemic and not come out of it with a lot of debt,” he said.

But the program has a gap: It requires both tenants and their landlords to apply for funds. 

Although Fisher applied for funding, her landlord, Southwood Apartments, declined to do so and proceeded with the eviction. Feeling she was bound for defeat, Fisher abandoned the apartment to preempt a judgment against her in eviction court.

“I wanted to stay, but I didn’t know how it would work out,” she said. “I didn’t want the eviction on my record.”

Uncooperative landlords have blocked hundreds of tenants in Kentucky from accessing money intended to keep a roof over their heads. Federal regulations allow renters to receive the funding directly, if landlords won’t cooperate. But local administrators for the state’s three public funds have opted not to distribute the money directly to Kentucky tenants.

Last year Louisville received 1,916 applications for a diversion program that offered emergency aid to renters facing eviction. But 353 applications — nearly a fifth — were denied because the landlord refused to cooperate, according to data from the city’s Office of Housing.

“Sometimes the landlord didn’t respond to our multiple emails or calls or just flat out said they didn’t want to participate,” said Marilyn Harris, director of Louisville’s Office of Housing. 

Administrators of the funds in Kentucky say direct funding is an imperfect solution. Louisville doesn’t pay tenants directly because renters sometimes don’t have bank accounts, because renters might spend money on priorities other than housing, and because accepting direct funding would force renters to forfeit certain protections, Harris said.

Charlie Lanter, director of grants and special projects for the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, also said direct funding is too cumbersome. “It is avoided to every extent possible,” he said.

A spokesperson for the state fund — which covers households outside of Louisville and Lexington — acknowledged that tenants can receive the funding directly but did not answer when asked if any tenants are receiving funds without their landlords.

The uncooperative landlord is a policy blind spot that exposes the most vulnerable tenants to eviction. Despite protections intended to protect dislocation, thousands of Kentuckians are continuing to get evicted amid the public health emergency. It’s a problem playing out inside Kentucky’s courtrooms and off the record books.

“This is a problem with federal, state, and local leadership,” said Clare Rutz Wallace, executive director of the South Louisville Community Ministries. “The logistics of getting actual resources from A to B, into people’s pockets and stomachs, can be really hard. 

“It’s just bad policy.”

Eviction Prevention ‘Actually Landlord Assistance’ 

Last month, Beshear hailed the eviction relief funds as “an opportunity no one should turn down.” Still, he acknowledged the state will “need to get a way to address” the issue of uncooperative landlords, though he didn’t mention giving funds directly to tenants. 

“We want to make sure that our folks come out of this with less debt, with a brighter future — that our landlords and businesses are compensated,” Beshear said last week.

Websites for Kentucky’s eviction relief funds don’t mention direct funding as an option. The decision by administrators not to dole out funds directly means many Kentucky renters won’t receive eviction relief money only because their landlords won’t apply. 

Some landlords are wary of government involvement in their business and are unwilling to wait for the funding to arrive. Other landlords resent the tenant, or the application’s stipulation that they can’t evict a renter for any reason until more than two months after assistance ends.

Tenants’ advocates stress that the majority of landlords in Kentucky are cooperating with renter protections. Their consternation centers on a handful of landlords who, to their mind, are refusing “free money” in an effort to fend off state scrutiny of their business practices and portfolios.

“This rental assistance is actually landlord assistance,” explained Ginny Ramsey, director of the Catholic Action Center, a Lexington shelter. “They’re the ones who get the money, nobody else.”

Uncooperative landlords are passing up a sizable chunk of money, particularly when tenants haven’t paid since widespread unemployment and eviction protections first hit last March, said Art Crosby, executive director of the Lexington Fair Housing Council. 

Crosby has seen landlords net $15,000 for a single tenant. But many landlords, he said, either don’t know about the programs or get too “antsy” to wait for the funding. 

“The landlords don’t believe the money will come,” he said. “How do we convince landlords this money is actually coming?”

Rigorous Process Leaves Some Tenants Behind

After the pandemic hit Kentucky in March of last year, local governments and federal policymakers scrambled to pass housing protections. The intent was both epidemiological and economic: keep tenants safe in their homes, and offer fiscal relief to landlords and the millions of renters struggling to stay housed amid one of the most rapid and severe economic downturns in modern American history.

“It is a uniquely awful, horrific time to be experiencing housing insecurity,” said Adrienne Bush, head of the Homeless & Housing Coalition of Kentucky. “What happens to folks after they get kicked out of home? They end up doubling up with another family, exposing everyone to COVID, or moving into a congregate living facility like a shelter.”

The Centers for Disease Control issued a moratorium in September barring all residential evictions in the U.S. due to non-payment of rent, and Gov. Andy Beshear signed an executive order affirming the moratorium in Kentucky. In January, President Biden extended the protections another two months. To qualify for the moratorium, though, renters must present their landlord with a signed declaration that they are unable to pay rent and face risk of homelessness if evicted.

The federal CARES Act, passed by Congress in March 2020, provided millions of dollars to aid low-to-moderate income households that hadn’t paid rent as a result of the pandemic. Another round of federal funding this year has renewed the chance for renter relief. Applications are currently being accepted by the state’s three separate funds: Louisville ($23 million), Lexington ($10 million), and the rest of the state ($264 million). 

To qualify, tenants must face the risk of eviction, demonstrate financial hardship as a result of the pandemic, and earn 80% or below the area’s median income. (In Louisville, that’s $61,100 per year for a family of four.) 

Advocates have praised the funding as a lifeline for households on the brink of eviction. The payments are generous: up to 100% of past rent owed since April 1, 2020, and up to three months of future rent. So far, nearly $21 million in total has been distributed to assist more than 17,000 residents in Louisville alone, according to public data

Kentucky began accepting applications for the latest round of rent relief in February, and the first payments were sent out in early March, Beshear said.

The programs already require tenants to submit a pending court eviction or a past due notice from a landlord, as well as a photo ID, recent income status, and verification of lost income due to COVID-19. Landlords must forgive late fees, penalties, interest and court fees as well as agree to give 30 days notice for a future eviction, which cannot begin until at least 45 days after the aid ends.

Some landlords are refusing to participate because they do not want to give the city a W-9,” said Harris of Louisville’s program. When a renter chooses to self-evict after their landlord refuses funding, public administrators refer that renter to nonprofits to cover expenses such as a security deposit and first month’s rent at a new place.

To distribute the money directly to tenants, federal regulations ask for more fraud reduction measures. Administrators have to document that a landlord is unresponsive or unwilling to accept the funds, and the tenant would have to produce a receipt showing the public funds were used to pay their rent.

Harris said direct funding poses problems. Tenants often lack a checking or bank account and, even if they have one, their funds might be garnished and not reach the landlord, she said. 

“Tenants will make the best choices for them, and that may not be housing, if they are lacking other basics like food,” Harris said. “That is not a bad thing, but the funds are to be used for housing.”

If Louisville were to pay tenants directly, she added, renters wouldn’t gain the 75-day eviction protection.

It’s unknown exactly how many tenants in Kentucky have applied for funding without landlord approval, or how many have been evicted as a result of the loophole, since the Lexington and state funds either don’t distinguish between a landlord and tenant app or aren’t tracking incomplete applications.

Moratoriums Aren’t Stopping Evictions

Efforts to pause evictions have been undermined by loopholes, ambiguities in the legal process, uncooperative landlords, and judges unwilling to extend evictions safeguards to tenants. Some tenants are getting evicted because they don’t know the law and can’t afford a lawyer. Others are getting evicted because landlords or judges are choosing not to apply the law.

Landlords who don’t apply for funds represent just one blind spot in policies intended to protect tenants.

“Landlords have found all sorts of ways around the eviction moratorium,” said Stewart Pope, advocacy director at the Legal Aid Society of Louisville. 

The consequences of policy loopholes don’t affect all tenants equally. 

“Evictions are always going to hit the lower-income neighborhoods first. They’re going to disproportionately hit people of color,” said Pope.

Thousands of Kentuckians continue to face eviction in court and removals from their home. The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office logged 922 forcible detainer complaints, or notices of an intent to evict, in February. Most won’t reach the final stage of a formal set-out because tenants like Fisher “self-evict” after receiving an initial legal notice. The sheriff’s office conducted 78 set-outs in February, according to data from the JCSO. 

Eviction problems persist even when a tenant’s only infraction is nonpayment.

After the coronavirus reached central Kentucky, Brian Willman got laid off from his manufacturing plant in Lebanon. He applied for unemployment benefits but still struggled to pay rent while providing for his wife and four kids. 

Willman’s luck soured further in mid-November, just weeks after finding new work, when he caught a debilitating case of the coronavirus. By December, he’d returned to work. But he was still short $2,500 on rent. Willman wasn’t surprised when the Nelson County sheriff’s office served him with an eviction notice from his landlord. 

“I knew eviction was coming,” said Willman, who was living in Bardstown. “But I thought I was protected by the moratorium.”

The forcible detainer complaint filed against Willman states he breached the lease only for “non payment of rent,” according to court documents. But he never submitted a CDC declaration — he didn’t know it existed. “The first time I heard about it was at my court hearing,” he said. 

Ramon Pineiroa, sheriff of Nelson County, where Willman lived, said he sympathized with tenants and their landlords. “Put yourself in the landlord’s shoes. He still has to pay that mortgage,” Pineiroa said.

As part of the CARES Act passed by Congress in March 2020, homeowners with federally backed loans were granted forbearance on mortgages. The protection didn’t apply to mortgages controlled by private lenders.

When asked why his deputies don’t provide tenants with a blank copy of the CDC declaration when posting a court notice on their home, Pineiroa said, it’s “between the landlord and their renter.”

“It’s not a judgment call on our part,” he added. “When we get the paperwork, we gotta do our job.”

Without the declaration, and without a lawyer, Willman lost his eviction case. Days later, his wife gave birth to his fifth child. Just days after that, he and his family were evicted. 

Some of the tenants might find relief in the courts when they’re denied access to eviction prevention funds. But lawyers are a major expense that compounds the inequities faced by tenants who can’t afford rent and aren’t entitled to a public defender in a civil case. 

Some advocates want the evictions moratoria strengthened so as to banish all evictions, for any reason, during the duration of the coronavirus crisis. Comparing the challenges faced by landlords with those faced by tenants amounts to a “false equivalence,” said Christina Libby, an advocate at the Homeless & Housing Coalition of Kentucky who attended eviction court throughout the fall to help renters connect with resources to prevent their eviction.

“An evicted tenant faces homelessness. [Landlords] are not going to be at the risk of death, or the virus, or hunger, from not getting their mortgage paid,” she said.

Fisher, who moved out of Southwood Apartments in Louisville to preempt eviction, has since found work as a pharmacy technician. Mike Maple, a lawyer for Southwood Apartments, which operates under the legal name S.W. Tract 1 LLC, declined to comment. 

Fisher still does not know why the company wouldn’t accept eviction relief funding. For her part, she’s trying to move on despite her outstanding debts, which could be sent to collections.

After getting evicted from his home in Nelson County, Willman and his five kids and wife moved in with family in Ohio. To make ends meet, he had to junk his car for cash. He doubts he’ll ever return to Bardstown.

“I’m done with Kentucky,” he said.

Graham Ambrose is a Report for America corps member. Contact Graham at gambrose@kycir.org.

Graham Ambrose is an investigative reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. He is a Report for America corps member.