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By Austin R. Ramsey

Published March 31, 2019 | Messenger-Inquirer

When she and her children were forced to leave their last apartment in Owensboro nearly 10 years ago, she thought there was nowhere else to go.


A single mother with just one source of income, rental property in the city and county were hard enough to come by, let alone affordable. When she happened upon a place she and her children could call home, at least for a while, she jumped at the chance.


"It wasn't perfect, but I thought we would get it fixed up and livable," she said. "I was wrong."


What followed has been 10 years of what she describes as hell. Missing windows, leaky ceilings, a dangerous backyard — the woman and her children live in Daviess County without a working air conditioner and a heater that once went out in the dead of winter, plunging the old home into sub-freezing temperatures. Her landlord, she claims, refused to fix it "until the snow had melted."


The Messenger-Inquirer has agreed to keep the woman's name out of this story because she feared she may be evicted from her home. Despite a lease agreement that she says guarantees her livable conditions, the home is meager at best. The few things that have been repaired, she says, have only introduced more problems into the home, and when she has opted to fix or buy things for the rental herself, her landlord has admonished her for it and refused to reimburse her expenses.


But the woman is a professional in the community. She has a good-paying job and receives modest help in food stamps every month. Few of her colleagues or friends know the conditions she goes home to every day, and she believes she can't find or afford a better place to live. Between missing window panes and a damaged door, mildew that has irreversibly damaged belongings and the near-constant fear that anything or everything could break and leave her and her children exposed to the elements, she says she's nearly lost all hope.


"I'm trapped," she said. "I don't feel safe, but I don't have anywhere else left to go."


This woman, like many others, sought help with the Owensboro Human Relations Commission, and sadly, officials there say, stories like hers are not uncommon in Daviess County. The nonprofit organization chartered by the city of Owensboro to put an end to discrimination among protected legal classes has become a sounding board in recent years for landlord-tenant disputes.


Last fiscal year, 65 percent of all commission inquiries came predominantly in the form of tenants who believed they were being denied access to livable space, according to an annual report. So far this year, said Executive Director Kaitlin Nonweiler, 43 of the 70 or so complaints have been related to housing, representing about a 10 percent spike in the number of cases she says she can do very little about.


Kentucky is one of only two states in the U.S. without statewide habitability standards for renters. The Uniform Residential Landlord Tenant Act (URLTA) of 1974 furnished landlords and tenants in the commonwealth with statutory protections that encouraged both to better maintain and improve housing quality. But the law gave municipal governments like cities and counties the option to put it into effect in their jurisdictions and only roughly 4 percent of them have.


Neither Owensboro nor Daviess County is among them.


"When renters come to our office or call and they explain the situation to me, I have to basically say, 'There are no laws protecting you, and there's really nothing we can do other than listen,' " Nonweiler said. "That's what most people are looking for, too. When they come, they feel like we listen to them. They feel like they get the runaround every other place that they've gone to. Here, we listen to their story, we express empathy for them, and that means the world to them. I tell them that we're here and we take their data. We take their story and we use it to advocate for them — for their rights. We're here to make their voices heard and give the opportunity for them to share their story. The marginalized and disenfranchised groups in our community — the poor, immigrants, people of color, LGBTQ — often don't have a voice."


In non-URLTA communities, often the only protections a landlord or tenant have are those outlined in a lease, but writing a lease or knowing what to look for in one can be challenging for the inexperienced landlord or disenfranchised tenant.


April is National Fair Housing Month in the U.S., and the Human Relations Commission, in conjunction with the Diocese of Owensboro Catholic Charities and Kentucky Legal Aid, is hosting housing workshops all month to help tenants and landlords learn more about what rights they do and don't have. It's a positive first step, Nonweiler said, in engaging both sides of often fraught relationships in frank and honest dialogue.


"Some landlords that don't have multiple apartments or multiple homes and maybe just rent out one home, they're not very knowledgeable about how to write a lease or what to put in it," she said. "That honestly is where most of the problems we see are coming from. URLTA would provide them with a framework. It has things that they have to put in a lease and other things they could take out or add themselves according to what they wanted. It would certainly benefit landlords, not just tenants."


In fact, said Jim DeMaio, executive officer of the Greater Owensboro REALTOR Association, for the most part, his organization has no problem with fair protections for both sides of landlord-tenant relationships. DeMaio said he didn't even realize URLTA wasn't already in place in Owensboro-Daviess County, and he's shocked, he said, that many of the provisions he and member organizations regularly abide by aren't mandated by law.


"Obviously, if someone were to bring this to the (Owensboro) City Commission or (Daviess) Fiscal Court, I would have to wait to have a conversation with my board of directors, but knowing how we advocate for fairness between buyers and sellers, I don't know why we wouldn't advocate for fairness between landlords and tenants," he said. "We're always on the side of fairness. I don't think any of us would have a reason not to. Besides, the fact that this is already a state law makes it easier to support."


Bill Castlen, manager of Benchmark Properties in Owensboro, said his company, and most other rental outfits in the city and county, already abide by most if not all the tenets outlined in URLTA, because it's the right thing to do. His philosophy behind renting properties is that, if he wouldn't live there, no one else should either.


But "bad landlords," Castlen said, are going to be bad, no matter what the law states, and there are plenty of protections already in place for tenants to seek help outside a state statute or city ordinance. The city housing inspectors play a crucial role in helping to determine whether space is livable for a tenant, an owner or anyone, he said.


According to Catholic Charities Director Susan Montalvo-Gesser, case law does provide some precedence for renters to seek protections, particularly as it relates to written notice and the number of days before legal action is permissible for non-payment of rent. But the lack of uniformity creates a burden on the courts and increases court costs and taxpayer dollars for common legal proceedings to take place throughout the state.


The Human Relations Commission has been lobbying city commissioners to pass URLTA in Owensboro for as far back as the law has been in place in Kentucky, according to old newspaper records. Just four years ago, the HRC, under former executive director Sylvia Coleman, brought it to the attention of the commission during a work session. Former Mayor Ron Payne expressed support for the ordinance proposal in its entirety, but it was never drafted, and some commissioners said there simply wasn't enough evidence that people in the community suffered under unfair leases.


Montalvo-Gesser said her organization and the commission plan to take the issue back before Daviess Fiscal Court soon.


Daviess County Judge-Executive Al Mattingly said he doesn't necessarily have a problem with any particular provision within URLTA, except one that requires municipalities or counties adopt it in its entirety, without any additions or subtractions.


"It impresses upon the entire commonwealth the same tenets," he said, "instead of giving local communities the ability to pass an ordinance that would be specific to their needs. You may not amend or change anything."


It's simply another example of state government overreach, the judge said, and legislators in Frankfort deciding what's right for people and organizations also governed by local elected leaders. If the commission or Catholic Charities did present an ordinance, he said, he would certainly entertain debating it, but he doesn't think there would be a lot of support for it in the community.

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