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A Louisville teen’s death highlights holes in local housing laws

Shanice Mahone in front of her home.
Lily Burris
Shanice Mahone said her rental property has been burdened with issues since she moved in, including a broken air conditioner.

A family said a property manager failed to repair their home’s air conditioner. Their son died after he spent the night in the family’s car to beat the heat. Now, a local lawmaker wants to strengthen the city’s outdated housing code.

When the summer heat engulfed the city, Shanice Mahone started to sweat inside her rental home in the Hazelwood neighborhood.

The home’s upstairs air conditioner hasn’t worked since she moved in 10 months ago, she said. The heat can be unbearable.

“It is so hot, like smelting,” Mahone said in an interview last month. “We will be sweating inside of the house like we just played basketball.”

Mahone, 30, said she’s told her property manager about the broken air conditioner and a range of other issues, but she’s had little luck in getting the problems fixed.

The home is owned by a private trust and managed by a company called Best Rentals LLC.

The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found that the company has repeatedly violated the Louisville Metro property maintenance code after city inspectors received complaints about mold, leaking sewage, dangerous trees and uncut grass.

We interviewed residents who said the company often neglects needed repairs — including broken air conditioners — and that they have trouble getting in contact with Best Rentals staff. Kim Kramer, the company’s manager, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Best Rentals lists more than 30 other rental properties on its website and promises property owners that once Best Rentals takes over they can “just sit and wait for your check.”

One of the listed homes is where 17-year-old Christian Ruhekenya lived with his family. The boy died this summer after he spent the night in his family’s running car to escape the heat inside his home where the air conditioner didn’t work.

His family said they tried to get Best Rentals to fix the air conditioner as a brutal heatwave bore down on the city. But the company neglected to do so.

Christian, overwhelmed with the late August heat that filled the home on South First Street, climbed into the family’s car parked in the garage and turned on the engine. His brother found him the next morning.

Christian Ruhekenya's family's house in Louisville
Lily Burris
The house on South First Street where Christian Ruhekenya lived with his family.

Christian’s home is owned by a trust with the same listed address as Best Rentals — a post office box on Taylorsville Road.

While local housing laws require heat in the cold winter months, there’s no mandate that landlords provide air conditioners to tenants. Owners that do provide an air conditioner must ensure it works, but city officials said they don’t have the resources to hold landlords accountable.

After Louisville Metro Council member Betsy Ruhe, a District 21 Democrat, saw the news reports about Christian’s death she examined local housing rules and found there was no law requiring air conditioners.

Now, she wants to make one.

She said summers are too hot in Louisville to not ensure every home has an air conditioner. With temperatures already exacerbated by the city’s urban heat island and the climate getting warmer, she said the demand for artificial cooling will only grow.

“You have to have air conditioning at that point, just like you have to have central heat,” Ruhe said. “It's becoming a have-to.”

Ruhe said she wants to amend the city’s property maintenance code and require property owners to provide at least one window air conditioner unit.

Local housing advocates and legal experts said her plan, if approved, could pave the way for stronger renter protections in Louisville.

More than a third of the city’s households are renters, according to data from the Metropolitan Housing Coalition. The current policy that governs landlord requirements in Louisville is called the Uniform Residential Landlord Tenant Act — a strict set of rules that cannot be changed without statewide legislation.

Ben Carter, the senior litigation and advocacy counsel at the Kentucky Equal Justice Center, said adding requirements for landlords in the city’s housing codes is one of the only ways to bolster living standards without getting approval from the state’s General Assembly.

“I think [Ruhe’s] proposed legislation … is a brilliant way to make sure that people are protected in a town that doesn't have enough tree cover to protect us, and is experiencing higher highs and lower lows as a result of climate change,” Carter said.

A repeat violator

When Mahone said she first walked into the house where she now lives, the smell was the first thing she noticed.

”I didn’t know if it was, like, dog or death,” she said.

But she needed a place in a hurry because her rent was about to increase and she needed something cheaper. The Best Rentals house on La Salle Avenue was listed for $1,400 a month with a $1,375 deposit. She moved in with her family in December 2022.

Mahone said she asked Kramer about the stench and a number of other issues — a busted refrigerator, a molding dishwasher, a broken heater and more.

It was up to Mahone to get a new fridge, according to her lease, so she did. Maintenance crews brought a new dishwasher. But she said the heat never got fixed. Instead, she said Kramer told her to buy some space heaters to combat the winter cold. That led to the electricity bill skyrocketing more than $300, she said.

Mahone said getting in touch with Kramer is a struggle. Communication is often limited to text messages — Mahone said Kramer only returns a call when she threatens to complain to state officials.

Kramer did not respond to a request for comment.

The only address listed on Best Rentals website is a post office box on Taylorsville Road.

Kramer founded the property management company in 2016, according to online records maintained by the Kentucky Secretary of State.

Kim Kramer's photo on Best Rentals website
Best Rentals LLC
Kim Kramer is manager of Best Rentals LLC.

The company lists properties across the city, with rents ranging from $900 a month for a 960 square foot home in Iroquois to $1,850 for a two-bedroom home in Bon Air with a finished basement.

The listed properties are owned by private trusts, limited liability companies or individuals. Seven owners — all trusts — list their mailing address as the same post office box that Best Rentals uses on Taylorsville Road, according to online property records. The person that manages those trusts, Edilberto Fonseca, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

On the Best Rentals website, Kramer boasts that she’s “committed to keeping the American dream alive” and that she believes in customer service “above all else.”

Louisville Metro code enforcement officers have found property maintenance violations at seven properties either managed by Best Rentals or owned by the private trusts that share a post office box, according to a KyCIR review of property maintenance records between January 2020 and September of this year. The violations have resulted in at least $900 in fines.

In one case from June of this year, sewage puddled against a house down the block from Mahone’s on La Salle Avenue. City records show inspectors visited the home and instructed the owner — a man who lives in Arizona — and Kramer — the property manager — to get the problem fixed. A month later, inspectors returned and noted in the case file that the stench still lingered. The file shows they didn’t visit the house again, but marked the case closed in September after Kramer told the inspectors that the leak was fixed.

At a St. Matthews home managed by Best Rentals, inspectors found a busted door, a sagging roof overhang, unkempt trees and uncut grass in May 2022. The owner — a man named Mark Galloway — paid more than $360 in fines before repairs were made and the case was closed ten months later. Galloway hung up when contacted by a KyCIR reporter.

In another case, a resident complained about grass that hadn’t been cut all summer at a home on a deadend street in far southwest Louisville where the mosquitoes had become a menace. Inspectors sent the citation to the Best Rentals post office box. The case file shows Kramer paid more than $370 in fines five months after the case was closed.

Landlords that repeatedly violate the city’s property maintenance code don’t face any stronger consequences than other violators, said Caitlin Bowling, a spokesperson for the Louisville Metro Department of Codes and Regulations.

Inspectors can tack on fines and continue to issue citations — but the city has no other avenue to force property owners to comply with local laws, she said.

“Unfortunately, no matter the consequence some will refuse to comply,” she said.

Ultimately, owners are responsible for keeping their properties in compliance with local laws. And it’s up to owners to pay fines and fees.

The Louisville Metro Council passed legislation in December 2022 that will require landlords register rental properties with the city. A part of that process will also require proactive inspections of properties — but Bowling said that city officials haven’t started doing that yet.

First, they need to hire more inspectors, she said.

Since Mahone moved in, inspectors have issued $400 in fines for violations found at her house that include unkempt trees, a rutted yard and a broken front porch light — issues she said are problems, but not as troubling as a busted air conditioner.

Mahone moved to Louisville three years ago after living in California and Arkansas. She spent some time in the Army, and now is working as a dental assistant. She’s married and has three young boys, the oldest — almost 12 years old— plays football. She likes the life she’s making here.

She doesn’t know much about the state’s housing laws — but she said she expects better than what Best Rentals is giving her.

“I just be mad for no reason, because she’s not going to fix anything,” she said. “And I realized that in the beginning.”

Mahone said she’d like to buy the property. She said if Kramer lets it happen — for a good price — then Mahone will make the repairs herself and ensure her family has the home they deserve.

An old rule

Stewart Pope has a printed copy of the Uniform Residential Landlord Tenant Act — known as URTLA — in his office in downtown Louisville. The pages are bound with black, plastic rings and Pope, the advocacy director for the Legal Aid Society, has had his copy for more than two decades.

Little has changed with URLTA in that time, he said.

URLTA is a state law that details the legal responsibilities of landlords and tenants and it only applies in cities or counties that have voted to adopt the measure, he said. And when it's adopted, there’s not much room for updates.

“When it was passed, it was passed on the condition that anybody that adopted it had to adopt it in its entirety, and there could be no amendment — couldn’t change a word,” Pope said.

This means that strengthening protections for renters in URLTA would require a change to the state law through the General Assembly.

Currently, URLTA does not require landlords to provide air conditioners at properties they rent, but they must maintain a unit if it is supplied. Heat is required between the months of October and May.

The law also requires landlords to follow local building and housing codes, and Pope said this is a mechanism local legislators can use to add renter protections without explicitly changing URLTA.

“That could very well pass muster,” he said.

Ben Carter, with the Kentucky Equal Justice Center, said if Ruhe’s plan works, it could create a path for future legislation to require landlords to get rid of pest infestations or mold.

“I’m incredibly encouraged to see council members looking at enhancements to the housing and building codes as a way to vouchsafe basic habitability requirements for renters,” he said.

Louisville Metro Council member Besty Ruhe
Louisville Metro Council
Louisville Metro Council member Betsy Ruhe, a District 21 Democrat

Ruhe said she’s a few weeks away from filing her ordinance with the Metro Council. First, she said she needs the Jefferson County Attorney to write the legislation. But she’s eager to fix what she sees as a problem — a lack of basic protections for the city’s renters.

Five days after Christian Ruhekenya died in his garage after spending the night in the family’s running car to get away from the heat inside his home, Ruhe asked the director of the city’s codes and regulations department in a council committee meeting what it would take to enforce her proposal.

Robert Kirchdorfer, the director of Codes and Regulations, said it would be complicated because inspectors wouldn’t know about a broken unit unless they received a complaint — meaning they have to be told about the problem before they can address it. And then property owners would be given some time to repair the issue which would depend on the availability of a contractor.

“There’s a lot of scenarios that come into play,” he said.

Hopefully, he said, no home would go 48 hours without air conditioning.

Blistering heat

Shanice Mahone said the Kentucky heat is blistering hot and it reminds her of her time in the Army when she’d suit up in full “battle rattle.”

Having no air conditioner in her house makes the heat feel inescapable and she’s angry about it.

Her three kids’ bedrooms were upstairs when they moved in. But after the air conditioner stopped working, Mahone and her husband switched with the kids. They moved the children — all boys, aged 11, 9 and 2 — downstairs and they took the upstairs bedroom.

“It sucks,” she said.

She said she ended up buying two smaller window air conditioning units and a larger wall unit, paying neary $400 — but they don’t do enough to keep the house cool.

Mahone thinks Ruhe’s plan is a no-brainer.

And she understands why Christian Ruhekenya would go sleep in his car to beat the heat inside his home. She’s taken meandering drives around the city to do the same thing — to give her own boys a break from the heat.

“This heat is hot,” she said. “For kids to have no air, for there to be no window units, for you to not have air throughout the whole house, that's wrong.”

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

News housingYouth Reporting
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.

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