When Victor Johnson went to eviction court in December, he hoped to stop the eviction of his family from the home they had rented on Argyle Drive for eight years.
The landlord had given him an eviction notice earlier that month, alleging the Johnson family had let the Argyle Drive home fall into disrepair. Victor Johnson said he wasn’t responsible for the condition of the property.
“I didn’t get a chance to speak,” Johnson said of his day in court. The judge never saw him when he raised his hand and ruled in favor of his landlord. An eviction notice was entered Dec. 28, court records show. The landlord sold the rental property within months of the eviction.
The Johnsons’ eviction was one of 43,725 court-ordered evictions in Fayette County from 2005 to 2016, according to a new report released this week. The Lexington Fair Housing Council’s report, titled “Locked Out: Foreclosure, Eviction and Housing Instability in Lexington, 2005-2016,” is the first study of evictions that go through Fayette County District Court.
The study found:
▪ While the number of home foreclosures fluctuated greatly from 2005 to 2016, the number of evictions in Fayette County has remained about the same — an average of 3,463 court-mandated evictions each year for the past 12 years.
▪ The courts overwhelmingly side with landlords in eviction cases. There were 68,260 filings for evictions during the 12-year time period. In 43,725 of those cases, or 65 percent, the judge sided with the landlord and the tenant was evicted. Tenants won only three cases. A little more than a third of the cases were dismissed before the court date, which likely means the tenant left on their own or paid back rent.
▪ The average annual rate of eviction in Fayette County is 6.3 percent.
▪ Few tenants have a lawyer. There is only one legal aid attorney to represent tenants in eviction court for a 15-county area that includes Fayette County.
▪ Some landlords use the courts to evict tenants more than others. The 10 landlords with the most eviction cases are responsible for more than 20 percent of all evictions over the past 12 years.
▪ Most evictions likely don’t go through the courts. Many Fayette County homeless and housing advocates say the 43,725 court-ordered evictions represent only about a third of the total evictions each year in Fayette County. It’s likely that the eviction rate in Fayette County is more than 10 percent, the study suggests.
▪ Evictions can lead people already struggling to make ends meet deeper into poverty.
Difficult road after eviction
Take the Johnson family. After getting their eviction notice, Johnson and his wife and two daughters moved their possessions into storage units.
Then things got worse.
While at the storage facility, Johnson collapsed. He had been hurt at work and was bleeding internally.
“My wife thought I was dead,” Johnson said. “The guy at the storage facility thought I was dead.”
He was taken to Baptist Health Lexington, where he had surgery to correct his internal injuries. His wife had posted a message on Facebook earlier that day saying the family was now homeless. A woman from their church saw the post and started making phone calls.
His wife and two elementary school-age daughters were placed in a city program that provides apartments for homeless families.
Ten months later, the Johnsons are still in that apartment off Alexandria Drive. Johnson works at a hospital and has money to pay rent, he said. But with a court-ordered eviction on his credit report, “we keep hearing no” from landlords, Johnson said.
The Johnsons’ struggle shows why many tenants try to avoid a court-ordered eviction at all costs. Most landlords won’t rent to someone with a court-ordered eviction, often leaving those people to live with family and friends. Others must settle for substandard housing or illegally sublet from other tenants. Some end up homeless.
Art Crosby, executive director of Lexington Fair Housing Council, said evictions are viewed as a byproduct of poverty and a symptom of the lack of affordable housing in Fayette County. But “evictions can also cause poverty,” Crosby said.
The report recommends the city appoint a task force to explore ways to reduce evictions and streamline services for tenants.
“There are resources out there,” Crosby said. “But they are scattered. Some programs help people with first month’s rent and security deposits. Others help with utility bills. But many tenants don’t know where to go.”
The city set up a similar task force to address homelessness five years ago. Out of that effort came a city-funded office that coordinates homeless services. Streamlining eviction intervention and improving education could keep more people housed, Crosby said.
Another potential solution: Allocating more money for legal defense of poor tenants.
Vice Mayor Steve Kay, who co-chaired the task force on homelessness, said he would be interested in learning more about the report and the data behind it. Kay said the next step may be to have the Fair Housing Council present its report to a council committee.
“What we do not have in the report, either with data or anecdote, are categories of eviction,” Kay said. “I believe there are a range of evictions and circumstances under which people are evicted and knowing more about that would be important in any attempt to address the problem.”
Susan Straub, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jim Gray, said the report shows the need for more affordable housing — an issue the city is trying to address.
“This study reconfirms the need for more affordable housing,” Straub said. “The city has more work to do, but we are off to a solid start.”
More than $11 million in city money has been allocated to either build or preserve 1,266 affordable houses or apartments since 2014, Straub said.
But even one of Lexington’s largest landlords says it’s time to examine the issue of evictions.
Austin Simms, the executive director of the Lexington Housing Authority, which manages public housing and housing voucher programs, said he supports allocating more money to hire lawyers who represent tenants facing evictions or appointing a task force.
“I would support anything that would decrease evictions,” Simms said.
According to the fair housing study, the Lexington Housing Authority instigated more than 1,000 court-ordered evictions from 2005 to 2016. Simms said the authority estimates the cost per eviction is approximately $1,000, including attorney and court fees and the cost of rehabbing and readying a housing unit for a new tenant. (Court fees are typically charged to the tenant but those fees are rarely paid.)
The housing authority is a government agency. It does not make money, but it must break even, Simms said.
“Our preference is that we would evict no one other than those who are being evicted because of criminal purposes,” Simms said. “If someone is struggling and has to juggle funds, we try to convince them to pay the rent first, that an eviction is not what you want on your record. But that advice is not always followed.”
An eviction from public housing makes it nearly impossible for someone to get subsidized housing again.
“We need to get people to understand this,” Simms said.
‘Being poor is so expensive’
The number of people who need subsidized housing — which means they pay a minimum of 30 percent of income for rent — far exceeds supply.
A recent housing study found that Lexington has a little less than 9,000 subsidized housing units. A 2014 consultant’s report showed that over the previous two decades, the city had lost 28,000 apartments that were affordable for minimum wage workers. The city needs at least 6,000 more affordable or subsidized housing units to meet the demand. In 2014, the city started an affordable housing program to address the problem.
In addition, rental prices continue to increase in Lexington even though public assistance payments for the elderly and disabled have remained stagnant.
Social Security disability pays less than $750 a month, but housing advocates say the cheapest one-bedroom apartments in Lexington are around $500, plus utilities. That means more than 70 percent of a single disabled person’s income is spent on rent and utilities. Food stamps help, but one unexpected expense such as a medical bill means they can’t pay their rent, said Ginny Ramsey, co-founder of the Catholic Action Center, a homeless shelter in Lexington.
“I don’t think people realize that there is a segment of our population that gets evicted every three to four months,” Ramsey said.
Ramsey and others said the vast majority of renters simply vacate their apartment in order to avoid a court-ordered eviction.
“Most of them don’t fight it,” said Lori Clemons, director of outreach services for the Lexington Rescue Mission. “They leave and they try to avoid going to court. Not only can they not pay rent but they can’t afford the court fees.”
The rescue mission helps an average of 10 people each month who have been evicted.
“Being poor is so expensive,” Clemons said.
Virtually no one being evicted can afford a lawyer, she said.
‘We cannot represent everyone’
Brian Dufresne is the only lawyer with the nonprofit group Legal Aid of the Bluegrass who represents renters facing eviction.
“I’m the only attorney who represents tenants that I have seen in court in the entire 15-county region,” Dufresne said. “We can not represent everyone who calls. The need is so incredible.”
Dufresne said not only are tenants not represented but the vast majority don’t come to court on the day of their eviction hearing.
“I would say maybe as many as 50 percent of the tenants don’t come,” Dufresne said.
But the vast majority of landlords have attorneys — approximately 70 percent — who represent them in court, he said.
Most tenants don’t understand Lexington’s landlord and tenant laws, Dufresne said. More education could keep people from being evicted. A common mistake is withholding rent to get a landlord to fix burst pipes or other problems in the rental unit. But if people don’t pay their rent, they can be evicted, Dufresne said.
Dufresne has been able to work with landlords to stop an eviction and keep people housed.
For example, he had a woman recently who was on disability and received a check for $740 a month. But the person who controls her disability payment did not pay her rent of $485. That wasn’t the woman’s fault. Dufresne was able to work something out with the landlord and get her past rent paid.
“We were able to get her caught up and the landlord dropped the eviction and the case was dismissed,” Dufresne said. “But she could be in the same situation again soon. She’s paying more than 70 percent of her income on housing. Any one thing that comes up and it could completely derail her.”
Ramsey said there are landlords that will give tenants with prior evictions on their records a chance. But because the affordable rental market is so tight and so many people need housing, they can often require that someone makes two to three times the monthly rent. So a landlord might want a potential tenant to have a monthly income of $1,500 when the rent is $550.
“We see a lot of people who just give up because they feel so defeated,” Ramsey said.
Christa Pinkston has been staying at the Catholic Action Center for months. Her husband has a prior felony. She has an eviction on her record. It’s been impossible for the two to find housing.
“How long does this have to follow us around? My eviction was five years ago,” Pinkston said. “I know people say you can get a felony expunged but you have to have money to do that.”
Christi Akers, who is also staying at the Catholic Action Center, agreed. Akers, who also has a prior court-ordered eviction, said because she has struggled to find a place to rent she has found herself in abusive relationships with men who can get housing.
Pinkston and her husband have tried to sublet from friends.
“We pay them, but then they can turn around and say get out,” Pinkston said.
She and Akers are both addicts and in recovery. They have made mistakes. They are trying to work their way out of homelessness. Without an address, they can’t get a job. And they can’t get housing because of their past. It’s a cycle that’s kept them homeless, they say.
Pinkston said she understands private landlords need to protect their property. They have to make money.
“I just don’t understand why it’s OK to discriminate against the homeless,” Pinkston said.