Community eviction panel calls for reforms to keep Louisvillians housed
A panel organized by the Louisville Bar Association, brought together voices from local government, law, and advocacy to shed light on the eviction process in Louisville.
Panelists outlined proposals to not only support tenants facing eviction, but also prevent evictions from being filed in the first place.
District Court Judge Jennifer Leibson spoke about the long-term consequences for tenants who have eviction judgements on their records, even for cases that were dismissed. She called for implementing an eviction expungement process, to remove these judgements from tenants’ records.
“This is the civil equivalent of having a murder on your record that’s dismissed,” Leibson said. “If you think that isn’t going to raise some eyebrows, you’re wrong.”
George Eklund, Director of Education and Advocacy at the Coalition for the Homeless, added that eviction records “unnecessarily keep people homeless in the long-term.” If a rental applicant has any eviction proceeding on their record, they’re denied housing, he said.
Rebekah Cotton, a senior attorney at the Legal Aid Society, highlighted the importance of legal representation for tenants going through eviction proceedings. The city’s “right to counsel” initiative, established in 2021, ensures people making less than 125% of the federal poverty line can have a lawyer present during eviction proceedings or mediation with their landlord.
In February, Metro Council unanimously voted to expand the program’s eligibility to people who do not have a child under 18. Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear allocated more than $38 million in eviction relief funding to Louisville Metro in December.
Cotton said since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Legal Aid Society’s housing team has expanded from two attorneys to eight.
“The face of eviction defense has completely changed in Jefferson County,” Cotton said. “If someone wants representation in eviction court, there’s someone to take that case.”
But Cotton added that more lawyers willing to take on pro-bono eviction cases are always needed.
Marilyn Harris, director of Develop Louisville – the city agency that works on housing stability – said an “eviction crisis” was taking place in Louisville even before the COVID-19 pandemic, when eviction concerns became front-and-center across the country as many tenants lost their sources of income.
Kentucky’s Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, or URLTA, codifies housing rights under state law, though some local jurisdictions haven’t adopted it.
Harris said Louisville Metro has contemplated creating its own URLTA, to replace the statewide version, but state law does not allow the city to do so.
“There are some things that the state of Kentucky could do to put our tenants on a little more solid footing, and level the playing field,” Harris said. “Quite frankly, the playing field is geared toward the landlord.”
Another main topic of discussion: the fallout from COVID-19, as pandemic-era tenant protections have now expired. Eklund called for a permanent rental assistance program.
He said a woman called him just hours before the panel, in a panic after her landlord decided to terminate her lease. She told Eklund that she’ll have to vacate her house in 30 days.
“The amount of stress that she was just holding in that moment – how can you move beyond that moment and thrive,” Eklund said.