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As the coronavirus pandemic spreads through Kentucky, we bring you the latest on death rates, risks of reopening and how it was affecting the commonwealth's most vulnerable.

As Courts Reopen, An Eviction Crisis Looms

A resident tries to find help with his belongings as crews move belongings out of the residence near Churchill Downs.
William DeShazer
A resident tries to find help with his belongings as crews move belongings out of the residence near Churchill Downs.

Since the pandemic began and courts across Kentucky effectively closed, attorney Ben Carter has assured his clients they cannot be evicted until July 1.

Through a series of executive orders issued in March, Gov. Andy Beshear and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Kentucky put a moratorium on evictions that protected people from being booted from their homes as the state’s economy spiraled. But in a surprise move late last month, the state’s high court changed the plan and began allowing eviction filings a month early.

The delay through July had been promising news for Carter’s clients, and countless others marred by the financial fallout of shuttered businesses, lost jobs, and owed rent, said Carter, the senior litigation and advocacy counsel for the Kentucky Equal Justice Center.

“I was very proud of Kentucky’s response,” he said. “The orders gave everyone a bright line rule of what the plan was.”

The court rescinded the eviction moratorium and announced that evictions for issues other than nonpayment of rent could begin being filed on June 1. The move stripped away a safety net that was keeping many renters in their homes as their jobs have vanished, their businesses have shrunk and their lives put on hold as a deadly pandemic swept across the globe. 

Housing advocates, experts and tenants fear the move will lead to a wave of evictions across the state, putting families at risk of homelessness, and it will introduce the threat of infection for the myriad of people who play a role in the process of eviction — tenants, landlords, sheriff deputies, court workers, and more.

“It certainly came as a shock,” Carter said in an interview this week. “The dangers of evictions right now, for everyone, are great.”

It’s not clear why the courts rescinded their original order to suspend evictions until July 1. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Kentucky did not respond to a request for comment.

Since eviction proceedings have been given the green light to resume, Carter said a patchwork of processes can be found in courtrooms across the state. Some county courts require defendants to show up in-person while others don’t. Some offer virtual conferences, and some require defendants to call. 

On Monday, Jefferson County courts will open, later than elsewhere in the state. The court asked for and received an extension to delay opening in order to develop a process and prepare for the wave of evictions expected to be filed. 

Most hearings will be held virtually or via phone, according to a notice issued by the Jefferson County District Court. Certain cases “deemed to require an in-person hearing” will be heard in a special Friday morning session.

Carter expects renters in Louisville — where the eviction rate is nearly double the national average — will be blindsided by the high court’s rule change. And he has little hope that landlords will be deterred from ousting tenants by the caveat in the court’s order, that evictions will only be allowed for issues other than nonpayment. 

Such a stipulation relies on the presumption that all landlords will act in good faith, Carter said.

“This blows a huge hole in the protections that renters had in Kentucky and gives landlords all the reasons they need to pursue evictions on pretextual reasons,” he said. “The disappointment from my end is amplified by the fact that we did such a good job, only to have those protections evaporate,” 

Renters account for a third of the 1.7 million households in Kentucky, according to the U.S. Census. In Jefferson County, renters account for about 38 percent of households. The median rent in Jefferson County was $800 in 2018. 

Black households rent their homes at nearly double the rate of white households, according to data from the Metropolitan Housing Coalition. Eviction rates in Louisville are highest in western Louisville, where neighborhoods are predominately Black and where families are most likely to struggle to afford rent, according to analysis from the Metropolitan Housing Coalition.

For many, the struggle to pay rent is only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, said Catherine McGeeney, director of communications for the Coalition for the Homeless.

About 45 percent of the state’s workforce has applied for unemployment benefits in the past 12-weeks, according to a report from The Courier-Journal.

McGeeney pointed out that some people are still waiting for their unemployment checks and are being forced to make difficult decisions about which bills get paid, and which don’t.

McGeeney said the moratorium on evictions needs to be extended. 

If government officials cannot do that, she said there should at minimum be protections for people who are facing eviction only because they have yet to receive their unemployment benefits.

“All the experts we’ve talked to believe that this wave of eviction filings will dwarf the foreclosure crisis of 2008,” she said. 

The services that people rely on to find housing or support are also stretched thin as the pandemic rages on, McGeeney said. This can make it more difficult for recently evicted families to access the resources needed to rebound.

“This is clearly going to be bad for a lot of people,” she said. “The question is how dramatic will it be? We can hope for the best, but we need to really expect the worse.”

Stewart Pope expects to be busy in the coming weeks. He is the advocacy director for the Legal Aid Society, and thinks limited evictions will provide some protections for renters — but it’s only a matter of time until that protection wanes.

According to the order, any landlord that seeks to evict a tenant for an issue not related to failure to pay must also provide the tenant 14 days to address the issue. If the tenant fails to do so, the landlord can then file the eviction with the court.

Pope expects his team will assist people wade through the complicated process of eviction defense, as well as help people find resources that can help them get caught up on owed bills.

He said the courts will soon be sifting through a backlog of pending cases to put on the docket and landlords are required to prove that their properties are not exempted for evictions due to protections in the federal CARES Act. Those that fail to do so will have their cases dismissed, Pope said.

But on July 1, all evictions are on the table, he said. Pope said there are roughly 26,000 people in Louisville currently behind on their rent. For many of these people, an understanding landlord may be their only hope.

“I don’t know what the court would do if on July 1, some 20,000 evictions were filed,” he said. “It would be a nightmare.”

Contact Jacob Ryan at jryan@kycir.org.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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