Merlene Davis: 'Rent to Me' campaign to help refugees and victims of domestic violence

This is a billboard that is going up Friday as part of the "Rent to Me" campaign.
This is a billboard that is going up Friday as part of the "Rent to Me" campaign. Photo provided

As a property owner, would you rent to someone who has a history of missing rent payments, maybe even a couple of evictions, and who moves a lot? Probably not.

But what if you looked deeper and discovered that the person is a victim of domestic violence who has been forced to move out of harm's way with little or no resources?

Or, as a property owner, would you rent to a family with no background that can be checked, a family with no Social Security numbers, and who might not even be in the country yet? Could you relax rules that other tenants adhere to just so an immigrant family can have a safe place to live?

Those are a couple of the scenarios the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission is hoping property managers and landlords will think about when presented with tenants who don't meet their policies.

To help landlords think past their written rules and to see extenuating circumstances, the commission is starting a yearlong educational and training campaign called "Rent to Me."

Astarré Gudino, community relations coordinator at the commission, said the campaign is targeting the special needs of victims of domestic violence and of immigrants, two underserved groups in this area.

"We hear complaints," she said. "We know they are out there, but they don't come into our office to report."

Barbara Kleine, office director of the Kentucky Refugee Ministries-Lexington, said refugees are admitted through the State Department, which requires that safe, affordable housing with access to public transportation be set up before a refugee may leave a foreign country.

"The problem is there are only a few apartments that are affordable, or landlords who would rent to someone who is not even in the country," Kleine said. "The tenants are still in refugee camps."

Add to that, she said, the requirement to have a Social Security number, which can't be obtained until the refugee arrives, and to find landlords willing to rent to an agency instead of a person.

KRM helps refugees financially until they are self-sufficient and checks on them to ensure that the home is kept up and the person has a job and is paying rent on time.

But changing rules to accommodate refugees isn't easy.

"So many Lexington apartment complexes are owned out of state," Kleine said. "They can't make one rule for refugees and another for everyone else. That is the biggest problem."

The campaign — financed with a $143,000 grant from the Housing and Urban Development Fair Housing Assistance Program — will feature billboards that picture potential tenants and the statistics that show the reason that more education is needed. Also, the commission plans to hold workshops and training sessions for property managers, landlords and residents.

The sessions will review fair housing laws and the sensitivity needed in reviewing some tenant cases.

The idea for the campaign came up after a conversation with Darlene Thomas, director of GreenHouse17, formerly the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program, Gudino said.

"Many people do not realize the adverse impact that the 'rules' that are meant to protect actually cause in instances of domestic violence," she said.

GreenHouse17 housing and outreach coordinator Kathryn Barber said victims, who are mostly women with children, usually have low-paying jobs and larger families. Finding safe, affordable housing is nearly impossible without a deposit and large monthly rent.

"It is a death spiral," she said. "A lot of the women coming to us are coming because they have no other resources."

Simply removing the offender from the lease and changing the locks might not be enough. The offender could return, claiming the home as his own.

Moving out becomes the safest move, but that might not come with a refund of the deposit. Without that money, it's difficult for many people to move elsewhere. And the more the family moves, the less favorably they are looked upon by landlords.

The best-case scenario, Barber said, is finding an involved landlord who is willing to set up a payment plan. The worst case is having the family join a growing list of chronically homeless families pushed into that position because they wanted to escape an unsafe environment.

Gudino said she hopes the "Rent to Me" campaign will change that.

Some of the billboards are scheduled to go up Thursday, when the campaign will be launched at a luncheon featuring various organizations that it would benefit.

The Commission is willing to educate anyone about the housing problems that refugees and victims of domestic violence face, and to explain fair-housing laws, Gudino said.

"We would like to see Lexington take a stand against housing discrimination as a whole, but we want to bring light to the discrimination that domestic-violence victims and people of other national origins face when trying to 'start over' in Lexington," she said. "It is hard for both demographics to put down new roots, whether it is coming from a different country or leaving an abusive relationship."