Louisville landlords are required to provide heat. What if they don’t?
Heating is a legal right in Louisville. If your landlord isn’t providing it, then there are some resources to assist you.
Midway through October, a person that lives in a rental house on North 23rd Street in Portland called city officials to report a broken heater that hadn’t worked for a week.
Two days later, city records show another person that lives in a Valley Station apartment reported their heater was also broken and they were using an oven to heat their home.
The next day, a report came from a person that lives in a Wilder Park apartment about a heater that hadn’t worked since last winter.
“Issues have been reported and not addressed,” the caller said, who asked to remain anonymous, according to city records.
As the temperatures drop, city officials get hundreds of calls like this each year from people who say their landlords are failing to provide adequate heat — a utility that local housing laws require.
For Louisville renters, heating is a right under the Uniform Residential Tenant Landlord Act, which states that a landlord must provide “reasonable heat between October 1 and May 1.”
But landlords rarely face penalties for breaking the law, according to a Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting analysis of publicly available complaints to the city’s 311 service, property maintenance case files and interviews with city officials.
And housing experts say that the few options available for renters to hold their landlords accountable can be costly and slow.
City officials recorded nearly 500 complaints from residents between January 2020 and mid-October 2023 about broken or busted heaters, according to a KyCIR review of Metro311 data. Any resident can report an issue to Metro311 and the city maintains a public database that stretches back to 1997.
The complaints provide a glimpse into the struggles some renters face in Louisville — a city that experts contend has weak renter protections and not enough affordable housing.
People that report issues with heaters are often also dealing with a myriad of other issues inside their home, including bug infestations, mold, leaking pipes and more. Several complainants said their struggles with broken heaters are longstanding.
The problems are all over the city. However, complaints are more concentrated in the predominantly Black neighborhoods in the city’s west end — like California and Russell, as well as Wyandotte and Newburg.
When a person reports a problem to Metro311, city code enforcement officers will open a property maintenance case and investigate.
Last year, the office opened 246 heat-related cases, with 108 specifically saying “no heat.” In the first half of this month, Louisville Metro code enforcement has had 26 heat-related cases with four that specifically say “no heat.”
KyCIR reviewed 21 of those cases — only six have resulted in a fine.
Stewart Pope is the advocacy director for the Legal Aid Society and he often deals with landlords that shut off the heat in response to disputes with tenants rather than landlords that just fail to maintain the heat.
“That's what we see more of,” he said. “We do get some calls, occasionally, from people where the furnace just doesn't work, and the landlord is slow to get it fixed, but the calls that we get and have situations to deal with probably have more to do with times when the landlord has intentionally cut it off.”
If this happens, Pope said attorneys with the Legal Aid Society — which provides free legal services to people with incomes that are at or below 125% of the federal poverty limits — can call the landlord and advise them that it’s not legal to turn off the heat. If that doesn’t work, he said attorneys can ask a judge for an injunction — forcing the landlord to turn on the heat.
There are other options, too, Pope said.
If a landlord doesn’t fix a broken heater then local housing laws allow tenants to give a 14-day notice for breach of lease. If the problem isn’t fixed then the lease can be terminated in 30 days.
A tenant can also fix the problem themselves — with a 14-day notice — and deduct some of the cost from the lease.
Neither of those remedies are ideal, Pope said. For one, terminating a lease means the tenant would have to move and moving is expensive, he said. And if the tenant makes the repair themselves they are limited to what they can deduct from the rent. For example, Pope said that if a repair cost $1,500 and rent was $1000, they could only deduct $500 from the rent and the tenant would be out the difference.
Tenants can also withhold rent if a landlord isn’t following housing laws.
But Pope said it’s not a good idea.
“That has always been a loser in court, so I would never advise a tenant to do that,” he said.
Pope said the best hope for a tenant with heating issues is reporting the issue to the city.
“Call code enforcement and let them come out and cite the landlord for whatever the inadequate condition is,” Pope said.
Code Enforcement powers
The law states that “reasonable heat” must be provided in Louisville rental homes.
That means the entire house must be warm, said Tammy Goatley, a Louisville Metro code enforcement officer and court liaison.
“We prefer the whole house to be warm,” Goatley said.
Landlords who don’t follow the law can be penalized with fines, but a review of recent property maintenance case files shows that’s rare.
Just 6 of the 21 cases KyCIR reviewed from this year have resulted in a fine — and the case file doesn’t indicate if the fine is tied to a broken heater. For instance, at a house on 7th Street Road in Taylor Berry inspectors found several broken lights and windows, trash in the yard, a leaking water heater, missing smoke detectors, and a furnace that needed an inspection and a new filter — the fine: $276. In another case at an apartment in Germantown, inspectors listed a broken door, illegal locks, busted floors, deteriorating walls, and a furnace with a prohibited gas line — they issued a $2,300 fine.
If the fines don’t work or aren’t paid, then a Code Enforcement Office inspector might decide to take a landlord to court over the issue.
Sometimes landlords start addressing problems, and sometimes people will dodge fines and court dates no matter what, Goately said. She said they have problems with out-of-state property managers because some of them don’t invest back into their properties and it’s harder to take them to court.
Some problems are easy fixes, she said.
When inspectors show up at a house, she said they will often try to help residents figure out a quick-fix to alleviate issues until repairs get made - like showing someone how to adjust the vents to help get heat to the right room.
If the heating needs time to be repaired, they ask for landlords to provide space heaters. If the landlord doesn’t provide space heaters, then code enforcement has a list of local charities that they can send people to for help.
“It depends on what the issue is, but while they're trying to get it fixed, we asked them to accommodate them with some kind of a space heater,” she said.
Space heaters, though, can be dangerous, said Donovan Sims, a captain with the Louisville Division of Fire.
“We strongly discourage space heaters, just because they are so dangerous, but we understand that people do use them,” Sims said.
Sims said that home heating is the second leading cause of home fires.
For anyone using space heaters, Sims said to leave three feet of space all around them, make sure they’re plugged directly into the wall, turn them off before leaving or sleeping, and make sure they’re tested and approved, not any old space heater.
People also shouldn’t use their oven or stove to provide heating because it presents a carbon monoxide risk and it isn’t designed to provide heating.
“At the end of the day, we want you to stay well, we want you to stay safe as well,” Sims said. “Just use (a space heater) in the right manner - keep three feet of clearance around it and just make sure that you're not overloading it.”
As the cooler weather continues to come in, Sims encouraged people to plan ahead this year and every year. Be aware of what weather is coming. Get your furnace or heating system checked and cleaned. Purchase additional blankets and other warm objects if you can. Make sure your smoke detectors work.
Help with heating costs
If the heat is working in an apartment or home, but the cost of the electricity bill is a concern, residents can use LIHEAP, the Low-Income Housing Energy Assistance Program. It’s for people and households who live at or below 150% of the poverty line.
Brandon O’Neal, a LIHEAP supervisor, said the program helps more than 25,000 people each year.
“As soon as they come in, they schedule their appointment, they apply for the program, we complete the application, what happens immediately is we will apply a pledge to their LGE account or their water account, and after that we would pay,” O’Neal said.
For this period of LIHEAP subsidy, there’s $1.3 million available for Jefferson County residents. Right now, people who are seniors or are disabled can apply for the funding through October 31. Everyone eligible can apply starting November 6 into December.
To apply for this funding, you need your ID, the Social Security cards for everyone in the household, documentation of the previous month’s income and the bill from Louisville Gas and Electric or your lease if it's included in your rent.
“When they schedule one appointment, we will allow them to apply for both programs,” O’Neal said. “There's an (Metro Sewer District) program that helps towards their wastewater bill and then there’s a LIHEAP program to help pay towards the LGE bills, so we will complete applications for both. And that's only taking one appointment to be able to do that.”
Appointments will take about 15 to 30 minutes.