Linda Graham doesn’t know what she’s going to do.
A few hours earlier, a judge signed an eviction order that gave her seven days to vacate her apartment in Parkway Place public housing.
Graham’s youngest son doesn’t know yet that they will be pushed out of their home because of what she did for her oldest son. He is wriggling, grinning and leaning against her leg.
“Go, play,” she whispers. He trots toward a rear bedroom alone, a toy truck in his hand.
He doesn’t know because she hasn’t told him. It’s not his worry, she said.
“I don’t think he would really understand the concept of being homeless or evicted,” Graham said.
Each year, an average of 7,500 households are evicted in Jefferson County, a rate that in 2016 was more than two times the national average, according to eviction data provided by researchers at Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.
A Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting analysis of that data found the evicted tenants live mostly along the county’s western half, in areas beset by poverty and disproportionately populated by people of color. They are also more likely to be burdened by the costs of their rent, spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
About one third of all evictions between 2000 and 2016 were in neighborhoods west and south of downtown Louisville. In recent years, that proportion grew to nearly 36 percent of all evictions.
Experts and advocates say this disparity is no surprise. Poor, minority residents have been “systematically herded” into these pockets of the city for decades, said Cathy Hinko, executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition.
Hinko said some policies have been explicitly racist – like redlining, which used literal maps to guide investment decades ago. Other policies were more subtle, like zoning regulations that set mandates on where multifamily housing could be developed.
“We pretend it just happens, but it was deliberately engineered,” she said.
Neighborhoods rife with evictions are stripped of their stability. Data shows that poverty rates climb and populations wane where evictions have been the most common over the last 16 years.
Fewer than half of the areas in Jefferson County with above average eviction rates have experienced population growth. Poverty rates have grown in nearly 60 percent of those neighborhoods. And the percentage of renter-occupied households have grown in nearly 75 percent of the neighborhoods.
Though data show that evictions can impact neighborhoods, evictions haven’t been on the radar of city officials until recently, said Jeff O’Brien, director of Develop Louisville.
“It is just something that now I think has come to light, I don’t know why it has taken us so long as a community or a country to get to this real conversation about what is happening in our communities,” he said.
Affordable housing is in short supply in Louisville. Advocates claim nearly 60,000 households here spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
After years of clamoring by housing advocates, city officials have invested more than $40 million in loan and grant programs since 2016 for affordable housing development.
O’Brien said the city’s long-term plans to improve the city’s affordable housing stock and boost wages in poor areas will eventually help prevent evictions. But the city offers few short-term solutions. Programs that provide emergency funds are limited, although a Develop Louisville spokesman said about 300 people were given some assistance to help avoid eviction last fiscal year.
City officials are in the process of assessing the city’s housing needs and plan to release their findings by the end of the year. The assessment, O’Brien said, will help refine housing policies and priorities to guide the next generation of development.
The assessment comes as city officials tout a sweeping revitalization of the Russell neighborhood. A $30 million federal grant will spearhead the effort to raze the Beecher Terrace housing complex and replace it with mixed-income housing. A planned YMCA and Passport health facility are set for the southern edge of the neighborhood and city officials just last month pledged $10 million to assist in the development of a track and field center on the neighborhood’s western edge.
These projects are championed for their potential to transform the area, but advocates worry that little is said about what will happen to people currently living in the neighborhood.
Presently, there’s no good plan to prepare residents for rising property rates, Hinko said.
“We have to do something to prevent involuntary displacement,” she said.
This could include job training programs, renter protection programs, property tax moratoriums or eviction diversion programs, she said.
O’Brien said programs such as these are “key” and are being considered, but he didn’t have any details to share about when they would be implemented.
“We are very aware of displacement and know that can be very disruptive,” he said.
Single women, children impacted most
For children, the costs of eviction are great.
Moving can lead to missed school days, which can cause children to fall behind. What’s more, stress triggers a physiological response that can prevent learning, Hinko said.
“If we want our children educated we have to give them a stable, affordable place for their parents,” she said. “We have to love a child more than we want to punish the parent.”
Graham said her housing instability is the result of having few options and a lifetime of trauma. The cause for this eviction involves her oldest son, a shooting on the other side of town and a mother who said she was just trying to help.
Now, she peers at the concrete floor of her apartment and her youngest son slinks back to her side.
He likes to sleep late, she said. He needs a bed for himself.
At the shelters, that’d be unlikely. And she doesn’t want to go back there, anyway.
But she doesn’t have much money saved for a deposit. She is a single mother with past evictions. And she knows her choices will be scant.
“I need assistance,” she said. “I haven’t been able to get it.”
The areas in Louisville with the highest eviction rates are also places where a majority of residents are women and homes are often headed by single women, data shows.
For instance, in Russell, where eviction rates climb to four times the national average, 44 percent of homes are headed by single women, nearly three times the number for Jefferson County, according to a 2014 report from the now defunct Network Center for Community Change.
In the Parkland neighborhood, with eviction rates more than two times the county-wide average, women-headed households account for 34 percent of all homes. The median household income in Parkland is about $13,000, according to the report.
An eviction can thrust a family into a cycle of instability and stress that experts say stretches across society.
A signed eviction order often sends people into a seven-day scramble to pack belongings and find a new place to live, said Stewart Pope, advocacy director at Louisville’s Legal Aid Society, a group that provides legal services to poor residents.
Many people are already behind on rent and don’t have the money for a security deposit and the first and last month’s rent — payments often required upon move-in, he said.
“They could easily end up without their own place to live,” Pope said. “They could end up living in a car or a shelter.”
In 2017, the Legal Aid Society handled about 1,300 cases involving tenant and landlord disputes. About 74 percent of those defendants were women and 95 percent of the single parents assisted by the Legal Aid Society were women, according to data provided by the society.
Graham is a single mother and has been most of her adult life. She had her first kid when she was 16 years old and dropped out of high school shortly after. By the time she was 23 she had four more — and took in four of her nieces and nephews, she said.
“It was haywire,” she said.
Employers rarely see past her lack of formal education, she said. When she does land a job, it’s often low-paying.
With little income, her housing options are limited. In the past, she’s rented cramped apartments and crumbling homes from landlords who harassed her, failed to pay mortgages or ended up in prison. Each time, she’s been forced out.
Now, she lives at the Parkway Place public housing complex – a sprawling labyrinth of squat, tenement-style apartments tucked between a railroad track and a stretch of vacant industrial land.
She was apprehensive about moving in three years ago. She knew the complex struggled with crime and bad influences for her growing sons.
But she needed her own place and settled in.
“I just looked around and said this is either going to be a come-up or it’s going to be a downfall,” she said.
There, she said, her oldest son, Thaddius Thomas Jr., started getting in to trouble.
She took him off the lease after he was sent to a juvenile detention facility in 2016. Then he was sent home, with an ankle monitoring bracelet.
Late last year, Thaddius was charged in connection with a high-profile murder. A robbery and shooting in the Cherokee Triangle neighborhood left 30-year-old Jason Spencer dead, and it was all over the news.
“It was most definitely a downfall,” she said.
Housing authority officials told Graham they knew Thaddius had been staying there, and they started eviction proceedings. All residents have to be on the lease in public housing; Graham had registered his monitoring bracelet to her home in Parkway Place.
An attorney for the public housing authority argued that the home incarceration device being registered at her home was proof enough Thaddius was staying with his mother — a violation of her lease.
Looking back, she said registering the device to her home was a lapse of judgment.
“But at the same time, what am I supposed to do, leave my son homeless?” she said. “He’s my child.”
The housing authority gave her a couple extra weeks to try to make a plan, but with a few days left, she still wasn’t sure where she was going.
Graham can get back on a waiting list for public housing, but that could take years.
Ask her how many times she had to move in her life, and she laughs.
“Too many,” she said.
System ‘skewed towards the landlord’
Tenants are often unaware of the eviction process and their rights in that process, said Pope, with the Legal Aid Society.
Pope said the Legal Aid Society is one of the few resources for tenants trying to navigate the system. Louisville used to have a tenant association, but it was disbanded after it’s executive director was convicted of stealing funds from the nonprofit in 2006. It hasn’t been revived.
For each eviction, landlords must adhere to a set procedure for alerting tenants of eviction. Tenants unaware of that requirement can’t hold landlords accountable, Pope said.
And when they come to court, many tenants do so without an attorney, he said. This means many get evicted without ever having an opportunity to present a defense to counter the allegations against them.
“The system is very much skewed towards the landlord,” he said.
Eviction court is held at the Jefferson County Hall of Justice in downtown Louisville.
The docket moves rapidly, as judges call out names and rely on the landlord’s attorneys to manage the flow. The attorneys often have dozens of clients on the docket each day, and they indicate to the judge if the case can be dismissed or submitted for a judgment when the tenant is a no-show. The no-shows nearly always get eviction orders.
For the few tenants that do show up, their efforts to thwart an eviction seldom succeed, Pope said. Judges are focused on the allegations before them.
Gwendolyn Horton, an attorney for the Legal Aid Society who often works in eviction court, said most people fail to get “the big picture” and consider what led a tenant to miss a rent payment.
“What do we do for people that can’t afford their rent?” she asked.
The issue of eviction is more nuanced than rent payments and lease contracts, said Lavar Edmonds, a research specialist at Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.
“It’s an affordable housing issue,” he said. “Incomes just are not keeping up with rent prices.”
Residents burdened by high rent costs must often make choices between food, clothes, healthcare and housing, Edmonds said.
Families that spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing are considered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to be rent burdened.
“There is a voided cost in preventing an eviction,” Hinko said. “Keeping people in place, in a decent place that they can afford with the wages they make, really has to be a number one priority.”
Once a person is evicted, finding a home can become a constant struggle. The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office keeps a database of evictions that’s accessible to anyone online. Landlords often search the database to vet potential tenants.
But some people are unaware they have an eviction record.
Da’Marrion Fleming had seven forcible detainers on his record, but he only knew about one: the eviction in December 2017, after his Portland landlord raised his rent. Each time before, Fleming eventually paid back rent or worked out a deal to stay. But to anyone checking the records, there is no distinction.
Landlords don’t see past that record, he said. So he moved in to his mother’s home with his 8-year-old son. Eventually, he found a place for himself — a family friend agreed to let him rent to own — and he’s is on a path to homeownership.
Now, he has a yard and a garage and a basement with a new washer and dryer. He’s got a living room with a wraparound couch and a bedroom for each of his young sons. And he’s focused on his new nonprofit that teaches financial literacy to young people.
“Too many people capitalize off of ignorance,” he said. “And that’s what I was, ignorant.”
Contact Jacob Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org or (502) 814.6559. Contact Alexandra Kanik at email@example.com or (502) 814.6508.
To read Louisville magazine’s story on evictions, visit louisville.com/evictions.