Advocates for landlords and officials from agencies that work with renters agreed Thursday there is a crisis in Kentucky, with thousands of renters facing eviction over unpaid rent and landlords in danger of financial calamity if they can’t collect what’s owed to them.

The spark that lit the coming “eviction explosion,” as one speaker told the General Assembly’s interim judiciary committee Thursday, is the COVID-19 pandemic. Officials told committee members that confusion on evictions reigns across the state due to contradictory orders from the Administrative Office of the Courts and Gov. Andy Beshear’s office, and because of a federal lawsuit filed against Beshear’s order.

The state Supreme Court issued an order saying evictions for failure to pay, which had been suspended in the early days of the pandemic, could resume Aug. 1, but Beshear’s order blocks evictions from being enforced.

“Housing is not just housing. It’s safety from the coronavirus,” said Ben Carter, senior litigation and advocacy counsel, Kentucky Equal Justice Center. “It’s school for your kid and sometimes it’s your office.”

“I call what’s about to happen an eviction explosion,” Carter said. The state already had “an eviction crisis” before the pandemic, he said, because Kentucky does not have a statewide “uniform residential landlord-tenant act” that safeguards the rights of renters.

The state’s current eviction laws are “outdated, uneven and unfair,” Carter said.

Evictions disproportionately affect Blacks and other minorities, he said.

The state’s unemployment rate was 4.3% in June, with 82,700 members of the state’s workforce out of a job, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Making the problem worse, Carter said people are still struggling to get unemployment insurance payments. And while jobs for people making $32 an hour have increased by 2% in the state over pre-pandemic levels, jobs for people in lower salary ranges are still below their pre-pandemic level, particularly for people making $14 an hour or less, he said.

Meanwhile, rental assistance funds in the federal CARES Act either have not been distributed, or the programs to distribute them are still being created, Carter said.

Expiration of the enhanced $600 weekly unemployment payments in July hurt both tenants and property owners. “That was essentially rental assistance to landlords and renters,” Carter said.

Evictions for reasons other than non-payment never stopped, so landlords who can’t get an eviction based on non-payment come up with another reason and proceed, Carter said. Even with Beshear’s moratorium against putting people out, some sheriffs, such as in Jefferson County, enforce a court’s eviction order, he said.

Rent is “the first thing people pay when they can,” Carter said.

Aside from evicting people, landlords had alternatives for tenants who are working but not paying rent, such as garnishing wages, he said.

Ideally, the Supreme Court would stop evictions so the backlog of unemployment payments can be distributed, legislators can pass a statewide landlord/tenant law, and rental assistance programs can come online, Carter said.

“Everyone needs more time,” he said.

Josh Crabtree, executive director of Kentucky Legal Aid of the Bluegrass, said 221,000 households in the state currently can’t pay rent or are at risk of eviction. Amanda Young, executive director of Legal Aid of Kentucky, said some landlords who can’t evict under the moratorium cut the home’s utilities instead.

Sen. Stephen West, a Paris Republican, asked how long a tenant should be given before they are evicted. Across the state, it ranges from three days to 30 days, Crabtree said.

West said landlords also have expenses to meet and cannot indefinitely wait for rental payments.

“More time means the landlord doesn’t charge rent, but they are on the hook for mortgage payments,” West said. Some landlords are “mom and pops” and not large corporations, he said.

“Nobody is saying live rent-free,” Crabtree said. The question is “what’s appropriate in a pandemic.”

If schools can’t reopen,” it’s not safe to evict people, Crabtree said.

Rep. Savannah Maddox, a Dry Ridge Republican, said if property owners don’t receive rent, they’ll lose their property and tenants will have to vacate anyway.

“It’s just not the tenants, the home renters that are hurting,” Maddox said. “It’s the landlords, too.”

JD Carey, executive director of the Apartment Association of Kentucky, said landlords face “significant challenges,” and aid “from all levels of government is urgently needed.”

Landlords have worked with tenants to craft payment plans and have waived late fees, Carey said, but not all landlords can take partial payments.

Landlords recognize people have lost jobs and need assistance, Carey said, but “a small percentage of tenants have decided to take advantage (of the moratorium) and not pay rent.”

Some have refused to pay for six months, Carey said.

Landlords who aren’t being paid are at risk of insolvency, he said.

Landlords “are the only ones being asked to give away their property for free” while still facing expenses, he said.

“Eviction is the sole legal remedy” against someone who has “breached the lease agreement,” Carey said.

Instead of an eviction moratorium, assistance programs should be available and renters should talk with landlords about payment plans, he said.

Jesse Brewer, of the Greater Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Apartment Association, said “property owners do not want to evict … It’s a last resort. We prefer to work out payment plans to keep people in their homes.”

Brewer said even renters on benefits not affected by the expiration of the CARES Act, such as Social Security, have refused to pay rent because of the moratorium.

“I’ve had tenants purchase new cars, purchase TVs, and they say, ‘We don’t have to pay rent,’ ” Brewer said. “We need to address those gross abuses of the system.”

James Mayse, 270-691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse

James Mayse, 270-691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse

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