As rental assistance dwindles, Louisvillians are pushed to eviction
An influx of federal rental assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic helped keep tens of thousands of Louisvillians housed. But as that money dries up, tenants are being forced back into the cycle of eviction and homelessness.
On May 11 at 8:45 a.m., Brianna Harvell’s day began with loud knocks on her door.
“Sheriff’s office,” Jefferson County Sheriff’s Deputy Travis Schoenlaub announced at the doorstep to her apartment. “Today’s eviction day.”
22-year-old Harvell was the first of six tenants scheduled for eviction that day – a typical Thursday workload for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. Harvell had been living alone in this one-bedroom Springhurst apartment for a year and a half, paying about $1,250 each month.
In December, she got COVID-19, which kept her away from her job at a dry cleaner for three weeks. By the time she recovered, her boss had hired someone new.
Three months later, Harvell finally secured work as a full-time nanny. But those months without income destabilized her; she couldn’t immediately pay the rent she’d missed. Her landlord evicted her due to nonpayment of rent.
On the day of the eviction, five property management employees showed up at Harvell’s door alongside Deputy Schoenlaub. They emptied her apartment, carrying her pink couch, her mattress, chairs and plants down by the apartment building’s dumpster. By 9 a.m., she found herself on the stairwell behind her former home, her keys confiscated.
“Right now, I’m just in the process of laying my head somewhere, at least for the weekend,” Harvell said, waiting for a moving truck to take her belongings to a storage facility.
Rental assistance is ‘filled with barriers’
Louisville has returned to the pre-pandemic status quo, in which rental assistance for those trying to avoid eviction is often elusive.
Harvell tried to get rental assistance from the city’s Neighborhood Place initiative to make it through her unemployment. But she said she couldn’t get an appointment, despite trying every day for months.
“I knew I couldn’t do it by myself. I knew I needed rental assistance,” Harvell said. “I think I would still be in here if I had the help that I needed.”
Neighborhood Place, a city program run through the Office of Resilience and Community Services, is currently the only city entity distributing general rental aid. Eligible applicants can get up to $1,000 in crisis assistance as a one-time payment, or longer-term case management.
Cassandra Miller, who oversees Neighborhood Place operations, said around 500 appointments for rental assistance are available each month, and among the renters who do secure an appointment, many are denied due to strict eligibility criteria. The program has reverted back to the tighter requirements that were in place before the pandemic, like requiring applicants to have worked a minimum of 250 hours over the past six months.
Neighborhood Place’s budget is also waning. During the pandemic, it received $57 million specifically for rental assistance, as part of the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program, or ERAP, that Congress first enacted in 2020, Miller said.
Now, Miller said, Neighborhood Place is heading back to the pre-COVID norm of $676,000 annually for rent and utilities assistance, relying solely on general city funds.
Develop Louisville, under the city’s Office of Housing, is still distributing a portion of the approximately $38 million in ERAP eviction relief funding allocated by the state earlier this year. But those funds are for a specific set of 2,400 rental aid applications that the Kentucky Housing Corporation failed to process late last year. The money is not open to other tenants seeking rental assistance.
“At this exact moment, there is not any place to go to get funding for rental assistance from the city,” said Marilyn Harris, director of Develop Louisville. “We cannot open the floodgates to everybody because we do not have enough money.”
Celine Mutuyemariya, a housing advocate and former community health worker, said the pandemic was the first time she saw rental assistance get into tenants’ hands.
“A bunch of new processes and programs and policies proliferated because of what we experienced in the pandemic,” Mutuyemariya said.
But since September, Mutuyemariya said the process to obtain rental assistance has again become “filled with barriers.” Federal funds are no longer flowing. And long wait times at Neighborhood Place, on top of burdensome paperwork, are prohibitive for many low-income renters, she said.
Failure to pay rent is the most common cause of eviction. Without financial support, thousands more renters could face eviction by this summer.
“The only defense against eviction for nonpayment of rent is payment,” said Stewart Pope, advocacy director at the Legal Aid Society, at a press conference May 2.
Evictions back on the rise
Pre-pandemic, Jefferson County’s eviction rate was consistently twice the national average, at 15.7% in 2018, according to data from the Eviction Lab.
Then came an influx of federal COVID-19 funding and emergency eviction moratoria. Eviction filings county-wide fell by half from 2019 to 2020, as did court-directed eviction orders sent to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.
Now, eviction rates are back up. More than 5,500 evictions have been filed in district court so far this year.
Kevin Trager, Mayor Craig Greenberg’s press secretary, said the Greenberg administration has provided $8.25 million in direct rental assistance funding to families facing eviction since January, through a partnership with the Association of Community Ministries and the Louisville Urban League.
But that money did not come from the city’s budget. Instead, it came from leftover federal ERAP reserves – money that has stopped flowing to local jurisdictions.
“The American Rescue Plan provided unprecedented, one-time funding to help thousands of Louisvillians pay their rent and avoid eviction during the pandemic,” Trager said. “As our administration looks to address the city’s affordable housing crisis, we continue to consult with local housing advocates and will be focused on creating new, quality and affordable housing across the entire city.”
The Louisville Eviction Working Group, a coalition of housing advocates and renters, is calling on Greenberg to include at least $16 million in his fiscal year 2024 budget specifically for eviction prevention services, including rental assistance. As of now, Greenberg’s recommended budget does not set aside any funding for tenant rental assistance, directly.
Catherine McGeeney, communications director at the Coalition for the Homeless, said she wants to see the city fund “actual solutions,” rather than criminalize those who end up unhoused.
A minimum of $16 million in the budget, McGeeney said, would help maintain the progress made during the pandemic towards cutting the eviction rate in Louisville.
“The city should follow up on that bold investment of federal dollars with a bold investment of local dollars,” McGeeney said.
The underlying affordable housing crisis
Louisville needs at least 31,000 new units of affordable housing for the city's lowest-income residents, according to a 2019 housing needs assessment.
With below-market-rate rental options in limited supply, many Louisvillians are paying more than they can afford. More than 27% of Louisville households are cost-burdened, meaning they spend at least 30% of their income on rent or mortgage expenses, according to 2019 data from the Greater Louisville Project.
Mayor Greenberg’s fiscal year 2024 budget proposal includes $15 million for the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, as well as $2 million for small developer affordable housing preservation. Kentucky also recently received a $3.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for affordable housing production.
Advocates say this investment in affordable housing is a crucial part of the solution, to keep people housed in the long run.
But a sufficient supply of affordable units won’t appear overnight. That’s why advocates are demanding immediate relief for renters who are currently struggling to pay their bills, in conjunction with longer-term investments in affordable housing.
“Keeping people in their homes and providing that short-term assistance provides them with a sense of stability,” Mutuyemariya said.
‘I need this help before I get a notice on my door’
Two years ago, Angela Masden and her 9-year-old son, Xavier, moved from an apartment where they felt unsafe to somewhere that met their needs: a single-family home on a verdant cul-de-sac in South Louisville.
Xavier has made friends in the area. After school, he rides his bike in the neighborhood. He plays basketball in the driveway.
“My son loves the house – he loves the yard, he loves the space,” Masden said, adding that the stability she’s found in this house has helped Xavier manage his ADHD.
But in October, Masden lost her job as director of an after school program – a position she’d held for eight years. Both she and her mother fell ill at that time, preventing her from immediately securing a new full-time job.
Masden, a single mother, can no longer afford the $1,435 monthly rent. Her landlord has given her a grace period, but she’s worried she’ll be evicted this summer.
“The problem is, if you can’t work or you’re seeking applications and trying to find a position, and you’re not getting hired, rent doesn’t go away,” Masden said.
Masden has spent the last six months doing everything she can think of to pay her rent. She was denied unemployment benefits, even after appealing. So she decided to crowdfund, cobbling together enough money through donations from local churches and nonprofits – and by selling some belongings – to cover rent through May. She’s emptied out her retirement funds to pay the rest of her bills.
She also tried to get help from the city, to no avail.
After waiting weeks to get an appointment at Neighborhood Place, Masden spent several hours at their office in early April. She was denied funds because she had not worked the required 250 hours over the past six months.
“From October until now, it has just been a roller coaster,” Masden said. “When you get denied, and denied, and denied, what do you do? Where do you turn?”
Masden is desperate to stay in the house where she’s built a safe, comfortable life for her son. She’s seeking support right now to try to avoid eviction.
Evictions stay on tenants’ records, making it difficult to find housing in the future.
“I’m sitting here trying to tell you all, I need this help before I get a notice on my door,” Masden said, referring to conversations with city social services employees. “And you’re turning me away.”