Louisville Magazine

JUL 2018

Louisville Magazine is Louisville's city magazine, covering Louisville people, lifestyles, politics, sports, restaurants, entertainment and homes. Includes a monthly calendar of events.

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64 LOUISVILLE MAGAZINE 7.18 In Jefferson County, 4,000 to more than 5,000 households get evicted every year. This is the story of those who witness it, and of two people caught in the spiral. A black rolling cart hauls a stack of bubble-gum-pink folders to the third floor of the Hall of Justice downtown, landing in the lap of eviction court. Below, on the first floor, the 8:45 a.m. push of people files in through metal detectors, a march of mostly reluctant faces. Deputies' wands drift over limbs extended like starfish, beeping at pocket change, ankle monitors, belt buckles and hip replacements. ose here for eviction court arrive on the third floor and squint at the docket taped outside the doors, checking for their name, then typically retreating to gray metal benches with holes the size of pencils. ere's a seriousness of place here: stocky granite pillars, police officers, briefcases and, beyond a corridor of courtrooms, glimpses of daylight through a set of windows. e first-timers often sit stiff-backed with nervousness, unsure of what's to come. Because evictions are held in civil court, not criminal court, renters have no right to a public attorney. Most renters — 85 to 90 percent of them — don't even show up. When that happens, the judge grants the landlord, who usually does have legal representation, a default eviction judgment, meaning if the tenant isn't gone in seven days, the sheriff receives the cue for a "set- out" — that indelible final act when a home is essentially turned inside out, any and all contents left huddled on a curb. In 2016, 5,761 rental households were evicted in Jefferson County, putting the eviction rate at 4.49 percent of renter- occupied homes. at's about double the national average. In certain parts of west and south Louisville, the rate has long been much higher. Take the north-central section of Russell, a largely African-American part of the city in west Louisville where 30 percent of residents live in poverty. e eviction rate in 2016 was nearly 8.5 percent. And 25 percent of the 186 rental households in that area had an eviction filed against them, though not all of those filings ended with a set-out. (Data in this story provided by the Eviction Lab, Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts, Metropolitan Housing Coalition and the Kentucky State Data Center.) In the southwest corner of west Louisville's California neighborhood, where California meets the Park Hill neighborhood, 45 percent of residents live in poverty. In 2016, the eviction rate was nearly 16 percent. A majority of the 294 households in this area are rentals, and 27 percent have had evictions filed against them. In these high- eviction pockets, an abundance of rentals line streets, homeowners sticking to more stable neighborhoods. "Court is open!" a deputy calls upon unlocking courtroom doors just before 9 a.m. Landlords and renters quietly slide into pews; they're always a mix of all races, young and old. About 45 percent of renters in Jefferson County are people of color, and low-income women, particularly black women, are at a high risk for eviction. Seats near the doors go first. Nobody wants to get stuck here longer than needed. Lawyers, most in dark suits, head for a jury box with swiveling seats. ey share small talk, jokes. Attend eviction court for a few weeks and a familiar cast surfaces: an affable young lawyer who courteously shakes hands with those he's here to evict; another lawyer putting four kids through college largely on his eviction practice, always attending on Wednesdays with up to 30 cases to be called; a tall, no-nonsense deputy with a lush blond ponytail, her eyes expanding and eyebrows flexing when someone in court is talking, texting, popping gum or wearing a hat. e judge enters. All rise. "Good morning," the judge begins, "this is the civil division of Jefferson County Court. is is eviction court. We have to decide who has the right to possession of property." Judges call names, often one every few seconds. Lawyers look over their shoulder to see if a tenant is present. e attorney with the heavy caseload stands with his back to the judge, eyes on the pews so he doesn't waste "another half-second" turning around to look for someone. Monday through Friday, the docket totals about 80 cases, 50 of them on Fridays. ose 80 cases may take a total of only 30 to 40 minutes to complete. Only once a month will the docket stretch to 165 cases, maybe even close to 200. at's the public-housing eviction docket. Only a handful of those tenants show. Eviction court has always been busy. No matter rising stock prices or growing median incomes, this court gathers those largely untouched by such upswings. Frequent names pop up in eviction court, tenants who know they can ride rent-free for a few months before the sheriff expels them. But most carry the burden of job loss, illness, death of a loved one, a forever shuffle of prioritizing what to pay — bills or rent and, come the holidays, gifts so family can wake to a nice Christmas morning. Some renters move into $900 or $1,000 two- or three- bedroom rentals knowing it's a strain, but the $500 offerings frequently look too dismal to agree to. When tenants are present, they walk to a podium that faces the judge, some pushing strollers, dragging oxygen tanks, leaning on walkers. Most stand alone. ere are some good endings. If a tenant works out a deal with a landlord before court, the lawyer asks for a dismissal and the judge pounds a large red DISMISSED stamp on the case. One judge often brightly grins when she stamps: "You know the dismiss stamp is my favorite," she says from the bench. A more common transaction: Judge: "Did you pay rent?" Tenant: "No." Judge: "Judgment granted. You have seven days to vacate or try working something out with your landlord." Nearly everybody who winds up here is behind on rent. If you have receipts showing rent was paid, or that the landlord never gave you proper notice, like the required your-rent-is-late reminder letter, you have a fighting chance, a shot at a hearing at a later date when evidence from both sides will be presented. On a morning in April, a young African- American couple, who live in St. Matthews and have two small children in tow, wait to go before a judge. e woman, in fuzzy pink slippers and a U of L shirt, scurries out of the courtroom with the fidgety four-year- old and the man steps to the podium, his eight-month-old sleeping cheek to shoulder. e man admits they haven't paid rent for two months and, for some reason, doesn't bring up a letter from the Legal Aid Society that the couple believes might get them

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