Investigations

Louisville officials say they will use discretion in issuing public nuisance violations and stop urging landlords to evict tenants in an effort to be less hostile and avoid punishing victims of crimes.

The changes come in response to a recent investigation by KyCIR that found police and code enforcement officers have labeled the homes of victims and offenders alike as nuisances — sometimes before they qualified as a nuisance under the city’s ordinance.

Property owners and their tenants face steep fines if they’re considered a public nuisance, and some landlords evicted tenants in response to nuisance violation letters from the city.

But now, city authorities will no longer notify homeowners that they are a nuisance after just one police incident, and they will stop encouraging property owners to evict tenants from nuisance properties. Code enforcement officers will also investigate further before starting a nuisance case after instances involving violent crime to evaluate the potential impact on victims.

“The story raised some good points,” said Thomas Nord, a spokesman for the Louisville Metro Department of Codes and Regulations. “There is now a heightened awareness of the situation.”

But more substantial changes, which would require action from the Louisville Metro Council, seem unlikely at least for now. Council members expanded the city’s public nuisance ordinance in recent years to include a broad list of qualifying crimes that include drug offenses, assaults and theft. Though council members have expressed concern about how the ordinance is enforced, none have held hearings or proposed changes.

KyCIR examined nearly three hundred nuisance case files spanning three years and found dozens stemmed from domestic violence or other violent crime. In some cases, grieving families were issued a nuisance violation notice days after the overdose death or murder of a loved one.

Robert Kirchdorfer, director of the Louisville Metro Department of Codes and Regulations, said in December that he was unaware crime victims were being targeted or affected by nuisance enforcement. He sought changes to the enforcement process days after being interviewed by a KyCIR reporter, according to emails obtained through an open records request.

Alexandra Kanik | wfpl.org

City officials have changed the way they enforce public nuisance laws in the wake of a KyCIR investigation. One key change: they are no longer deeming properties a public nuisance after just one police visit.

Last week, city attorneys finalized a revised notice letter that will be sent to owners of properties deemed a public nuisance. These letters are the first alert that a property is the subject of a nuisance case, and they can serve as the jumping-off point for a whirlwind of ramifications and stress for owners and tenants.

The new letters are drastically different than the letters that have been issued for the past three years. Most notably, the letters no longer indicate a property is a public nuisance after just one police-related incident; the ordinance requires at least two.

The revised letters make clear the property isn’t a nuisance yet, and won’t be unless another police-related incident occurs.

Though codes officials claimed in earlier interviews that the letters were only a warning, that wasn’t clear to property owners who were informed their only defense to the violation was eviction and they faced criminal fines up to $1,000 a day.

There is no longer any mention of eviction or threat of $1,000 fines.

Alexandra Kanik

The old letters encouraged landlords to evict tenants as a defense to the violation, and a way to avoid fines. The new letter won’t mention eviction.

The amended letters are “less hostile,” said Nord, the spokesman. He said it’s not up to city officials to inform landlords about their eviction options.

To be sure, property owners are still subject to fines, and eviction is still a defense under the ordinance. Changing that would require action from the Louisville Metro Council.

The new letters urge owners to take necessary action to prevent properties from becoming or remaining a nuisance, offering a gentle reminder that their property is an “important investment for you and the community at large.”

“That was our intention with the [original letter],” Kirchdorfer said in an interview last week. “We’re always trying to improve the process to make things more clear to folks.”

Kirchdorfer said he wants to avoid saddling crime victims with the penalties that come with a public nuisance violation, but there’s no quick-fix to address the complexities that come with enforcing a broad law like the nuisance ordinance.

“We definitely don’t want to go in there and escalate a situation,” he said. “We’re going to look at the big picture… we’re never trying to encourage eviction.”

Code officials will review each case individually and use more discretion from now on when they get a request from police to open a public nuisance case, Kirchdorfer said.

The Louisville Metro Police Department has made no changes related to the public nuisance enforcement, according to Jessie Halladay, department spokesperson.

She said the agency is working to ensure officers are aware of the changes implemented by the Department of Codes and Regulations.

“We continue to work with codes as we refine the process of how we work together,” she said in an emailed statement. “We are always open to changes that improve the process.”

Crimes that involve domestic violence still qualify a property as a public nuisance, and Kirchdorfer would not say if he supports a blanket exemption for domestic violence cases.

Council members were incensed to hear victims were being labeled a nuisance, but so far, they’ve taken no action to change the ordinance.

Councilwoman Jessica Green said in December that the manner of how the nuisance law was being applied was “a travesty” and “utterly sickening.”

Green, chair of the council’s public safety committee, said that the ordinance was intended to help bust up drug dens and troublesome businesses not residential properties.

Green did not respond to multiple requests for another interview.

Louisville Metro Council president David James said he assumed the intent of the ordinance was clear: crack down on problematic businesses and drug houses. He said the issues uncovered by KyCIR surrounding public nuisance enforcement warrant a full review of the ordinance.

“We need to look at the whole thing and make sure we don’t have any unintended consequences with this ordinance,” he said. “I think we can do better.”

It’s not clear when the council will review the ordinance, however. James said that’s up to Green.

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