Louisville Metro looks to force problem property owners into mediation
After approving sweeping changes to Louisville’s nuisance ordinance, city officials hope it will be easier to force changes at properties where reoccurring crime is causing problems for neighbors.
Under the ordinance, which was approved unanimously by Metro Council Thursday night, a home or business could be deemed a “persistent illegal activity property” if a police officer arrests or issues a criminal citation to someone multiple times over the span of a year. The specific crimes that would trigger action by the city include murder, prostitution, drug trafficking, illegal gambling and assault.
If Code Enforcement officers determine that a property is being owned or operated in a way that encourages persistent illegal activity, the owner would be forced to meet with city officials and neighbors. The owner would be required to enter a resolution agreement with the city to fix the problems.
Metro Council President James, who represents Louisville’s District 6, told WFPL News that changes to the city’s nuisance ordinance will allow officials to address problems while avoiding costly legal battles. He said it has taken the city far too long under the existing rules to provide relief to neighbors living near problem properties.
“There have been businesses that have been cited by the city, but they’re tied up in court right now,” he said. “So, the businesses are still open and doing what they’re doing and causing problems.”
One example, James said, is the years-long battle between Louisville Metro and Dino’s Food Mart, a corner store in the West End neighborhood of Russell. Neighbors and Metro Council members have complained of shootings, stabbings and drug deals taking place on the store’s property.
Officials have tried, and failed, to have the store shut down multiple times, including once in 2020 after neighboring business owner David “Yaya” McAtee was shot and killed by National Guardsmen during racial justice protests. In 2021, Dino’s Food Mart fought a notice to vacate in court and remains open.
Under the changes approved Thursday night, property owners who fail to meet with the city or address the illegal activity on their premises, will face penalties such as having utilities shut off, being issued a notice of vacate or being liable to the city for the cost of responding police and emergency services. Hotels or motels can also be deemed persistent illegal activity properties if people staying there amass more than five citations or arrests on the property in one year.
In the case where an individual tenant in an apartment complex is the source of the problems, the ordinance says a notice to vacate would be limited to just that unit. James said this provision will ensure renters who aren’t involved in the illegal activity are protected.
“We’re saying to the landlord: ‘This is out of control. All of your other tenants are great, but this tenant is torturing everybody else. So either you’re going to step up as a landlord and put them out, or you’re going to face significant issues with your property,’” he said. “It gets peoples’ attention.”
A last minute change to the legislation Thursday night requires notification of all tenants early on in the process, not just landlords.
The ordinance also makes some technical changes that attorneys for the city say were preventing them from punishing property owners who were creating issues for neighboring residents. Under the changes, a notice of criminal activity nuisance cannot be appealed to the Code Enforcement Board in an effort to release property owners from required mediation.
At a meeting of Metro Council’s Public Safety Committee earlier this month, Assistant County Attorney Robbie Howard said the existing nuisance law required multiple steps before any action could be taken.
“We would have events occur at properties and would pretty much have to stop the process until we could get all the way through District Court, which can take up to a year,” he said.
Howard said the existing nuisance law was also unclear on what kind of issues could cause a property to become a nuisance.
“So, if we got in front of the Code Board or the District Court, there wasn’t really a standard that we had to establish to show that they were responsible for what was going on on their property,” Howard said. “Now, that’s hopefully been taken care of with the new ordinance.”
Protections for victims of domestic violence
A 2019 report by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found at least three dozen cases in which law enforcement or city officials had deemed homes where domestic violence occurred as a “public nuisance.”
This action put housing at risk for perpetrators and victims alike. Because eviction by a property owner is considered one way to remediate a public nuisance, victims who lived in a rental property were particularly vulnerable.
After the report was published, city officials said code enforcement officers would no longer deem a property a nuisance after just one police incident. Code enforcement officers were also directed to do a more in-depth investigation in cases involving violent crime to make sure victims were not being penalized. The procedural changes, however, still left nuisance enforcement up to the discretion of individual officers.
When this new ordinance was initially proposed, it still included that discretion in cases of domestic violence. District 9 Council Member Bill Hollander raised concerns about it while the legislation was still being vetted in committee earlier this month.
“We have an ordinance which clearly can be applied in ways that I think we would all agree are completely inappropriate,” Hollander said. “Yet, we’re reintroducing essentially the same ordinance … To me that’s a little bit worrisome.”
The ordinance was amended to make it clear that homes where a documented case of domestic violence occurs cannot be issued a notice of public nuisance. It was an easy fix: turning a “should not” into a “shall not.”
Hollander voted in favor of the ordinance when it was up for a final vote Thursday night.
One issue raised by KyCIR’s reporting still remains unaddressed. While the nuisance ordinance is meant to help the city breakup drug houses and crime dens, records showed some people have been put at risk of being evicted for simple drug possession.
Someone who is repeatedly arrested or cited for possessing drug paraphernalia, including devices used to smoke marijuana, could still find their home labeled a persistent illegal activity property.