Updated: Jan 16, 2020
Written By Josh Poe
(A shorter version of this op-ed appeared in the Courier Journal in July 2019)
The eviction rate in Louisville is double the national average and is the 7th highest in the nation.
Following a 2018 report on evictions by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, the Director of Louisville Metro Government's Develop Louisville Office stated that evictions were something that had “just now come to light.” Meaning that the issue had not been important enough to merit much attention by local government until Princeton shed light on it.
In the midst of a housing crisis, the Louisville Metro Housing Authority (LMHA) has demolished nearly 800 units of public housing and is replacing those with 629 units at the Beecher Terrace public housing site. This means that over 600 families have been displaced and relocated. At least one-third of the replacement units will be market rate. Despite “a “lifetime guarantee” from Mayor Greg Fischer that residents will be able to return, the math does not add up.
Here are the actual relocation numbers from LMHA’s 2017 “Relocation Plan Guide” that was submitted to HUD as part of the $30 million Choice Neighborhood grant. According to this plan, only 52 on-site units are being set aside for former Beecher Terrance residents to return.
The “one-for-one replacement” touted by LMHA does not mean on-site replacement. It means that a replacement public housing unit will exist somewhere in Jefferson County. Residents then face the choice of scattered site public housing, accepting a Housing Choice Voucher (commonly called Section 8), or opting into unsubsidized market rate housing. Anywhere between 1300 and 2000 people lived in Beecher Terrace. These residents are now forced into an affordable housing market that is under-supplied by over 60,000 units.
According to the Metropolitan Housing Coalition's 2019 State of Metropolitan Housing Report, over ¼ of former Beecher Terrace residents have already abandoned the relocation process or were forced out, “...from the original 726 households, 199 Beecher Terrace households are no longer in the LMHA system. Of these, there were 107 'involuntary terminations' and 92 households who moved into the private housing market, died, left Louisville/Jefferson County, or left due to illness."
An average of 14 people are evicted per day in Louisville.
Gentrifying neighborhoods trigger rent increases, which increases displacement and demand for units. In this context of increased demand, landlords often rely on more aggressive tactics to evict tenants as they are able to find new ones who will pay higher rents. Evictions are a political issue. In urban redevelopment efforts, private capital often enlists state and police assistance to target certain areas for high levels of evictions and arrests. These tactics serve to protect investment and provide the optics of “safety” when attracting white capital to the area.
But far too often we reduce impacted people to data points in hopes of exposing failed policy. Here is the story of one person’s experience with eviction violence.
Shemaeka Shaw grew up in Louisville and moved out of her parents’ house after high school in 1999. She then began renting in West Louisville. Prior to 2016, she had never experienced an arrest or an eviction. After reporting a sexual assault by her landlord to LMHA, the landlord retaliated by evicting her for non-payment of rent. Even with evidence that the landlord accepted her rent payment, she was evicted. Despite having a mediation agreement where she was given 30 days to vacate her property, the landlord arrived with Sheriff Deputy Mark Handy to execute the eviction before the end of the 30 days. She was then physically assaulted by the deputy when she tried to explain the 30 days’ notice. Deputy Handy physically removed Shemaeka from her home and charged her with resisting arrest and criminal trespassing.
Shemaeka was acquitted on both charges, primarily because she was instrumental in exposing deputy Handy’s history of lying under oath. Thanks in part to her activism and advocacy, four murder convictions have been overturned due to Handy’s criminal misconduct as an officer. He now faces charges of perjury and tampering with evidence and is a glaring example of the role of state police violence plays in the forced displacement of Black communities. Handy is not an aberration but very much part of a systemic pattern. Unsurprisingly, the sheriff's office cleared (the now retired) Handy in an internal affairs investigation in Shaw's arrest.
Shemaeka went to hospital for the injuries inflicted by Handy after she was released from jail. She lost most of her possessions, her photos, her tv, her bedroom set, her car, and her security deposit in the eviction after being beaten, arrested and dragged out of her home...all resulting from reporting a sexual assault. She would be homeless for the next 8 months.
In 2018, a HUD audit of Section 8 units in Louisville found violations in 97% of the homes inspected (898 homes). These homes all received passing grades in local LMHA inspections. In January 2017, Shemaeka moved into one of these Section 8 houses in the Chickasaw neighborhood that had failed 4 previous inspections for exposed wiring. The house caught on fire in April 2018 and she lost everything once again.
Shemaeka then moved to a unit in the California neighborhood owned by Neighborhood Rehabilitation, LLC. This company is one of hundreds of properties (under dozens of names) owned by prominent Louisville landlord John Clark; a serial evictor who has amassed tens of thousands of dollars in code violations over the years and was called “Louisville’s worst landlord” by a local news outlet in 2012.
Shemaeka’s new home also housed mold and mildew, the windows were nailed shut and the property had already failed 2 inspections. These issues are commonplace with slumlords that extract wealth from low-income neighborhoods and own hundreds of properties. Shemaeka began making requests for improvement with LMHA. In March of 2019, John Clark filed an eviction for nonpayment of rent. Although her rent payments were current, this is a common situation for residents who report code violations.
When the landlord fails to respond to the complaint, the LMHA withholds their Section 8 payment under a process called "abatement," this process gives the landlord license to file for eviction.
The LMHA abatement process creates a serious disincentive for tenants to report code issues.
In May of 2019, she was evicted a second time. While legally removing the items from her home, she was arrested and accused of 2nd degree burglary. After spending 6 days in jail, she was released after the Bail Project posted her bond. Once again, she lost most of her property and faced a felony charge for burglarizing her own home that was later dismissed.
This experience has been a nightmare for her and her children. Evictions are violent. Evictions are trauma inducing. Housing insecurity is a public health issue, and Shemaeka has multiple health problems related to these evictions. But Shemaeka Shaw does not need prayers, sympathy, a renter education program, a landlord incentive program, or a financial literacy class. She needs policies that protect her and her community from an oppressive and predatory process of dispossession in the face of investment capital.
Policies such as:
Statewide Just Cause Eviction Ordinance
Clean Hand Ordinance: landlords with outstanding code violations not being allowed to evict, receive land bank properties or public subsidies
And in developing those policies, Shemeaka needs to be at the head of the table in identifying solutions. Directly-impacted people are the subject matter experts through their own personal exploration and investigation, born out of necessity and survival. Truth is often derived from the lived experience of those directly-affected. How many directly-impacted people are on the boards of non-profits or foundations in Louisville? How many policy-makers share experiences and circumstances with the people they serve? How many community members have agency and control over the decisions and projects that impact their daily lives? Through her experiences with structural violence, Shemeaka has become an organizer in Louisville’s housing justice community. Her voice and the voices of those impacted should be centered in conversations about how to dismantle the past and future impacts of systems of oppression.
Shemaeka Shaw is the Director of Broken-Hearted Homes. She lives with her husband and 2 children in Louisville, KY.
Alexandra Kanik, Behind The Data: How We Found Louisville’s Highest Eviction Rates, July 5, 2018
Salviati, C. (2017). Rental Insecurity: The Threat of Evictions to America’s Renters. Apartment List.
Jacob Ryan, Instability Grows As Louisville Eviction Rate Doubles National Average, July 5, 2018
WHAS Staff, WHAS11 I-Team investigates 'Louisville's worst landlord', May 8, 2012
Martinez, Natalia, Mark Handy: Troubled former Louisville detective indicted, Sept 26, 2019, https://www.wave3.com/2018/09/26/mark-handy-troubled-former-louisville-detective-indicted/