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Louisville renters reported heat problems during cold snap. Most landlords escaped penalty.

LPM
Temperatures dipped to single digits in mid-January and more than two dozen renters reported problems with their heat.

Kentucky state law requires landlords provide heat to renters during winter months. But city records show there's little penalty when they don't.

As snow blanketed Louisville in mid-January, a city inspector checked the temperature inside the bedroom of a 3rd Street apartment — a jarring 48 degrees.

The inspector was there to follow up on a complaint about burst pipes and no heat, according to records obtained by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

At the time, a frigid cold spell engulfed the region. In Louisville, temperatures dipped to near 3 degrees.

State law requires that rental properties be equipped with working heat and hot water between October and May to ensure renters have safe places to live in the harsh winter months. But that doesn’t always happen.

Between Jan. 11 and Jan. 17 — the coldest week of the season, so far — Louisville Metro property inspectors received 30 complaints about frozen pipes, no heat, leaks, drafty windows and a furnace on the fritz, according to a KyCIR review of property maintenance case files.

The files and online records show inspectors cited at least 11 property owners for heat-related violations — busted furnaces, frozen pipes, low temperatures. Inspectors cited six other properties for non heat-related violations — cracked ceilings, low water pressure, busted windows and more. In the other 13 cases inspectors found no violations, could not access the property or the issue had been resolved before the inspector arrived, the records show.

The records also highlight a system that puts compliance to the city’s property code over penalizing landlords who violate it.

For instance, just one case resulted in a fine against the property owner — $200 for failing to repair a broken heater at an apartment complex in Clifton Heights, records show.

Fines are the primary tool city inspectors have to force property owners into complying with the Louisville Metro property maintenance code. But previous reporting from KyCIR has found that fines don’t always work and repeat offenders aren’t subject to harsher penalties.

Oftentimes, when a resident reports their home has no heat, inspectors will give property owners 48 hours to address the problem, said Caitlin Bowling, a spokesperson for the city’s department of codes and regulations.

City records show that at least four owners fixed the heat within that time frame. This week, Bowling said all the issues reported were resolved.

KyCIR tried to reach more than a dozen property owners listed in the inspectors’ case files. None immediately returned a request for comment. Nearly half of the property owners listed in the case files are from out-of-state.

Housing is a key topic in Louisville, a city that needs about 31,400 more homes to meet demand. Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg’s promise to increase the city’s stock of available housing is a key element of his administration. State legislators are also focusing on the issue, with bills to build more “middle housing,” debates about income-based discrimination, and a proposed rewrite of the Uniform Residential Landlord Tenant Agreement — the sweeping state law that sets the standards for rental properties in Louisville.

Housing experts, community advocates and local legislators told KyCIR that many residents don’t trust city inspectors to address issues in rental housing. Without that oversight, they fear the city’s already troubling housing shortage could be exacerbated.

Lyndon Pryor, president and CEO of the Louisville Urban League, said humane living conditions are a critically important element of housing.

“Landlords should be providing as they are required to do by law, and anyone who is not doing that should face consequences,” Pryor said.

He’s heard from people that come to the Louisville Urban League for assistance that city inspectors don’t consistently or effectively help. He wonders: does the city’s process protect renters?

“I don't know that there are a lot of people who feel confident or comfortable with the timetable or the sense of urgency by the city or anyone else to come to their aid when they are truly being harmed by poor management of a landlord,” Pryor said.

Louisville Metro Council Member Barbara Shanklin, a District 2 Democrat, said she’s long heard complaints from residents about city inspectors not doing enough to remedy issues with properties.

“The landlords, if you hit them in the pocket, then they’re going to do what they're supposed to do,” Shanklin said. “But if we don't never fine them or anything, they're going to continue to do the same thing they're doing now, which is nothing.”

Shanklin, who also chairs the council’s equity, community affairs, housing, health and education committee, said she hopes the city’s newly appointed director of codes and regulations will make some changes.

Mayor Greenberg appointed Richard Price to oversee the Louisville Metro Department of Codes and Regulations in December. He took over late last month after previously working as the assistant director of Louisville Metro’s Department of Fleet and Facilities.

Price said inspectors work to immediately get in touch with landlords and property owners once they’ve done an inspection and found violations, using everything from calls and texts to sending letters in the mail.

“First and foremost, it's about safety, and it's about compliance,” Price said. “Our desire is to ensure that all property owners are complying with the code, and making sure that the dwellings that the citizens are living in are safe.”

Price said that there are some people who don’t trust the government and he wants his department to work to educate people on what they do and to show that they care about their work.

“I think it's on us as a department to do everything we can to first educate the public on who we are, what we do,” Price said. “We are here to help and not to harm and sometimes that's going to take a little time.”

In the meantime, people need to speak out and advocate for safe, affordable housing with access to heat, electricity, clean water and other critical amenities, said Tony Curtis, executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition, a local nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing. Some ways to do that: contacting local lawmakers and writing op-eds, he said.

“We need to remember at all times that tenants are human beings,” Curtis said.

This story has been updated.

Investigative Reporter Lily Burris is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Email Lily at lburris@lpm.org.