Op-Ed

No hot water? A hole in your roof? Why Kentucky law is so bad for renters.

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Once on a first date, I talked about landlord-tenant law in Kentucky for 15 minutes. Fortunately, my now fiancé still asked me out on a second date. I love talking about landlord-tenant law with anyone who will listen – anyone, that is, except my clients.

I’m an attorney at AppalReD Legal Aid, a non-profit that offers free legal services to poor Eastern Kentuckians. Every week, I meet with clients who have landlord problems that go something like this:

“My front window has been missing since I moved in. The landlord said he’d fix it, but we’ve lived there months with a plastic sheet covering the hole.”

“My heat’s completely out. Me and my kids are sleeping in the living room with space heaters running. Our electric bill’s over $400 a month.”

“I haven’t had hot water since I moved in. I told my landlord I’d pay my rent when he fixed it. He fixed it and told me to move.”

“A hole in our roof with just a tarp covering it.”

“Frozen pipes. Landlord says wait for them to thaw.”

I listen, and then I usually give the same canned speech: “I’m sorry, but we can’t help you.” I don’t enjoy telling poor people they’re out of luck. But sadly, they are. And it’s not because my office isn’t willing to help. We’d love to. Unfortunately, there’s no law to help them.

While Kentucky has a statewide law requiring safe living conditions for stray animals, no such protection exists for rent-paying humans.

Like many states, Kentucky has adopted the Uniform Residential Landlord-Tenant Act (URLTA). URLTA gives renters the right to a livable residence and allows them to deduct expenses for basic repairs from their rent. URLTA also benefits landlords by clarifying the notice period for evictions (sometimes shorter than common law standards).

After URLTA’s passage, Kentucky’s legislature restricted its application to counties and cities that affirmatively choose to adopt it. At last count, only 33 towns and 4 counties (including Fayette) have chosen to do so.

But renters living in the other 90+ percent of the state (which includes all my clients) have virtually no legal protections. Without URLTA, the law is that a renter takes an apartment as she sees it, and the landlord has no duty to repair unless the lease says otherwise. Leases rarely say otherwise.

They’re nearly always drafted by landlords, and often, the only thing the landlord agrees to do is give the renter access to the property. Most renters sign those leases. They know that if they don’t, the landlord will rent to someone else, particularly in rural areas where rental property is scarce.

And a lot of renters think they have some legal protections, even if their lease doesn’t say so, right? Then, a few months later they find themselves sitting across the desk from me. And I’m telling them, no, Kentucky doesn’t recognize one of the most basic human rights – a safe place to live.

Renting is on the rise, driven in part by the recent housing crisis. But Kentucky law doesn’t reflect that shift. Instead, Kentucky is one of only two states in the U.S. without statewide habitability standards for renters.

For many of my clients, renting is the only viable option. We talk about how they should be careful about the leases they sign. “Try to advocate for yourself,” I say. “Talk to your landlord about what he will repair. Get that in writing.”

Nevertheless, I have a lot of repeat clients because they usually don’t have the power to negotiate for safe housing. And I’ll still be here telling them the law doesn’t give them that power either.

When they leave, I’ll go back to helping other Eastern Kentuckians with legal problems we can address until it’s time for me to go home and complain about landlord-tenant law to my good-natured fiancé or our dog or whoever else will listen.

Elizabeth A. Davis is the senior staff attorney at AppalReD Legal Aid.

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