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‘Stain on your record’: Evictions follow Kentuckians for years, limiting access to housing

Lexa Harley stands with two of her children, Ava and Mason, in front of the Shelby Park apartment she's been renting since September.
Danielle Kaye
/
LPM
Lexa Harley stands with two of her children, Ava and Mason, in front of the Shelby Park apartment she's been renting since September.

In Kentucky, evictions follow people for years after court proceedings, often acting as a long-term barrier to stable housing. But state-level efforts to remove evictions from tenants’ records are gaining momentum.

In both 2019 and 2021, Lexa Harley and her three kids found themselves in housing limbo, when payment disputes led to their eviction from two separate Louisville apartments.

After each eviction, Harley said she applied for about 30 apartments owned by property management companies across the city. But with a fresh eviction on her record, every single company turned her down.

Forced to rent from independent landlords, Harley ended up in an apartment where her family felt unsafe. Her new landlord failed to fix their broken toilet or cover up exposed wires that posed a risk to her kids, she said. When she pushed back against what she called sub-par conditions, Harley found herself evicted yet again in 2022.

Those three evictions still show up when Harley applies for housing.

She said each eviction has further limited her housing options. They’ve forced her into a cycle of exploitative rental arrangements, only making her more vulnerable to future evictions.

“There’s no room to explain why you got evicted. Eviction is a one-sided story,” Harley said. “This has made it really, really hard for me to find housing – at least decent housing, safe housing.”

As of now, there is no process in place for Kentuckians to remove evictions from their records. Evictions hold people like Harley back from an array of housing opportunities. The mere act of a landlord filing an eviction case in court leaves a permanent stain.

After spending weeks at an emergency shelter with her kids, Harley finally found new housing in September: a three-bedroom apartment in Shelby Park. It’s small – she sleeps on the couch. But she’s able to use her Section 8 housing voucher and her landlord didn’t automatically rule her out because of her previous evictions.

Harley said she’s grateful to have found some stability – though she still worries about keeping a roof over her kids’ heads.

“I’m pretty much always now worried about my housing, because of what I’ve been through in the past,” Harley said.

Bipartisan support for eviction expungement 

Advocates and lawmakers say momentum is building in the Kentucky General Assembly to address the long-term consequences of evictions.

Over the past two legislative sessions, bipartisan support has grown for the implementation of an eviction expungement process in Kentucky – to remove evictions from tenants’ records with the goal of eliminating one of the barriers to long-term housing stability.

Louisville Democratic Rep. Nima Kulkarni first filed an eviction expungement bill in 2022, then again this year, though neither proposal advanced. The most recent version of the bill would require courts to automatically expunge dismissed cases after 60 days. Cases that result in an eviction order would be expunged after three years.

“This particular gap that exists in Kentucky law is something that we can fix,” Kulkarni said. “It’s creating an extra layer and an extra hurdle for people.”

Kulkarni said she’s in ongoing discussions with lawmakers about how long evictions – those that result in judgements in court – should stay on a tenant’s public record, for a landlord to view, before they’re sealed.

Louisville Republican Sen. Julie Raque Adams, in collaboration with Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield, of Crofton, sponsored a separate eviction expungement bill in the 2023 legislative session – a sign of bipartisan support for this type of proposal, though Westerfield said the details of future bills still need to be ironed out.

“If we could get any sort of expungement today, even if it was more limited, it’s something that we can more easily expand later,” Westerfield said.

Westerfield is the chair of the Kentucky Senate Judiciary Committee, but announced he won’t seek reelection when his term is up in 2024. He said he believes certain provisions, like requiring a tenant to pay what they owe their landlord before getting their eviction record sealed, might be necessary to make upcoming proposals more palatable to GOP state lawmakers.

George Eklund, director of education and advocacy at the Louisville-based Coalition for the Homeless, said his ultimate goal is to get evictions expunged as quickly as possible.

“That record should never actually be used against a person to determine whether they can get into housing,” Eklund said. “The problem is that eviction is a binary stain on your record – it either looks like you had one or you didn’t … There’s a lot of gray area of why people got evicted.”

Ekland said state lawmakers have been receptive to his advocacy for an eviction expungement process – and that he’s received “very few hard no’s.”

Kentucky Youth Advocates, a statewide lobbying organization for kids, made eviction expungement one of their 2023 state policy priorities. Executive director Terry Brooks said he’s also seeing momentum build in the General Assembly.

Brooks said he’ll be “really disappointed and really surprised” if an eviction expungement bill doesn’t pass in the 2024 legislative session.

“I’m encouraged by the potential for eviction expungement to just maybe be one of those sweet spots that we can get rural and urban, Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative lawmakers to agree on,” Brooks said.

A ‘first step’ in eviction reform

Eviction expungement does not directly address the many causes of eviction – from the affordable housing crisis and skyrocketing rents to insufficient rental assistance, among other structural factors. But tenants and advocates say the process can at least reduce the harm caused by forced displacement.

“There was a broad consensus that eviction expungement was a good first step,” Brooks said.

A 2021 national poll from Data for Progress and The Appeal found 64% of voters, including 54% of Republicans, support making it easier to seal and/or expunge records related to evictions.

As of April, there were 10 states, including the District of Columbia, with active legislation related to the sealing or expunging of eviction records, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Expungement laws can include clauses to ensure that researchers still have access to data to document trends in evictions, while preventing landlords from tracing eviction filings back to specific rental applicants.

Kathryn Sabbeth, a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies evictions, said there are both individual and aggregate consequences of eviction records. On an individual level, having an eviction on your record can make it harder to find housing.

As a result, certain groups of people are systemically locked out of housing opportunities, thus contributing to segregation, Sabbeth said. Black women are disproportionately affected by eviction.

Sabbeth said eviction expungement has the potential to be a nonpartisan reform – and it could start conversations about broader “injustice in the eviction system.”

“It’s absolutely an important step to address these records, if the goal is to promote access to safe, stable housing,” Sabbeth said. “But it’s only a first step … The records are just a small symptom of the problem.”

Support for this story was provided in part by theJewish Heritage Fund.

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