A global pandemic. 25% of Kentucky workers out of work. Governor's Orders. #HealthyAtHome. Delays in unemployment payments.
What is a person who rents their home supposed to do?
Here are some answers to questions you may have about renters' rights in the time of COVID–19.
What protections are in place for Kentuckians who rent their homes?
Kentuckians who rent their homes (apartments, etc.) have three different layers of protection during this global pandemic and related economic crisis that has required 1 in 4 Kentucky workers to file for unemployment.
First, on March 25th, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear issued Executive Order 2020-257, which suspended all evictions within the Commonwealth.
Second, the Kentucky Supreme Court has prohibited eviction filings and eviction hearings. That means no new evictions can be filed until July 1st.
Third, some Kentuckians will have additional protections because a law passed by Congress called the CARES Act prohibits landlords who participate in certain federal housing programs from 1) charging late fees and 2) filing evictions for nonpayment of rent. (There’s more information about determining whether the CARES Act protects you below.)
While the eviction protections Kentuckians have are not perfect, this map and this scorecard show that Kentucky has some of the most robust protections across the entire nation for people who rent their homes. Governor Beshear’s Executive Order and the quick action of the Kentucky Supreme Court has protected Kentuckians and saved lives. KEJC wrote a letter to the Kentucky Supreme Court thanking the Justices for suspending eviction filings during the global pandemic. 20 organizations signed on.
How long are these protections in place?
The Governor’s suspension of evictions is in effect until the Governor issues another Executive Order ending the suspension. (The Governor’s Order only prohibits the physical act of evicting a person once a judge has ordered an eviction.)
The Supreme Court’s Order suspending eviction filings expires 30 days after the expiration of its April 16th Order. That Order is set to expire on May 30th. So, if nothing changes, landlords can file evictions again beginning on July 1st.
The CARES Act prohibitions last for 120 days from the passage of the Act. That means that the CARES Act protections end on July 25th.
Why did these government officials suspend evictions and eviction filings?
Kentucky’s Governor and its Supreme Court and the U.S. Congress took these steps to protect Kentuckians who rent from eviction because—even in normal times—evictions cause massive disruption in peoples’ lives. Now (during a global pandemic), disruptive evictions create an even greater risk to public health and safety than they normally do. It is not safe or even possible for people to move, seek new housing, and run all the errands necessary to transition to new housing during this pandemic.
Also, everyone understands that the social distancing that is keeping Kentuckians safe has caused an unprecedented disruption to millions of families’ finances. And, this disruption was not the fault of individuals at all. This pause allows everyone to be safe at home while we sort everything out—medically, socially, legally.
Do I have to pay rent?
Yes. None of the laws or orders that have been passed suspend a person’s obligation to pay rent. If at all possible, pay your rent.
What these protections do is prevent Kentuckians from having to choose between paying rent and feeding their families or buying necessary medicines. Or deciding to risk their personal safety to make enough money to pay rent.
These protections mean that landlords cannot evict renters right now. When the Governor lifts his Order, when the Kentucky Supreme Court allows evictions to be filed again, Kentuckians who are behind on their rent will be vulnerable to eviction actions.
In addition to eviction actions, landlords can also file a lawsuit against you for the rent you did not pay (plus late fees and other costs) and potentially the balance of the rent payments you owe under the lease.
I can’t pay rent right now. What do I tell my landlord?
Tell your landlord you can’t pay rent because there’s a global pandemic going on. KEJC has prepared a tool to quickly and easily generate a letter to your landlord to let your landlord know what’s up. You can download the letter, customize it (or not), and ship it out.
Maintaining a good relationship with your landlord during this time of hardship is important. Or, at minimum, clearly communicating with your landlord is in your best interest. If you are going to have a hard time paying rent in the coming months, you should tell your landlord 1) why you can’t pay rent, 2) what steps you’ve taken to find money to pay rent, 3) what your plan is to pay rent eventually.
KEJC’s letter generator helps you deliver this information to your landlord.
You should communicate this information in a way that you can document what you told your landlord. If you send a letter, send it certified mail. If you send an email, save a .pdf of the email. If you send a text message, take a screenshot of the text message after you’ve sent it. If you have a conversation with your landlord, you can record that conversation. (Note: in some states it is illegal to record a conversation unless both parties know the conversation is being recorded. In Kentucky, it is legal to record a conversation as long as one party knows it is being recorded.)
The letter generated by KEJC’s letter generator includes language requesting that the landlord only communicate via email or text.
I lost my job or lost hours. I can’t afford rent or food or health care. What help is available to me?
KEJC is maintaining a list of programs that may help you get the food, health care, and money you need during this crisis. Please apply for as many as you can and understand: programs are changing almost every day in order to help more people during this crisis. If you don’t qualify for a certain program this week, you need to check again in coming weeks.
Can a landlord charge late fees during the crisis?
It depends. If you live in a “covered property” under the CARES Act, your landlord is prohibited from charging late fees. If your landlord is subject to the CARES Act and is trying to charge you late fees, you need to speak with an attorney right away (see below for finding an attorney).
However, if your landlord is not subject to the CARES Act and your lease agreement includes late fees, your landlord can charge you late fees if you pay rent late or can’t pay rent.
Can a landlord raise my rent during the crisis?
I wrote a whole blog post on this. The short answer is “Probably, yes, but that is not a very chill thing to do.” Of course, if you have a lease agreement that runs until, for example, September, the landlord can’t raise rent until the lease agreement ends. But, if you are a month-to-month tenant, your landlord can (but should not) raise your rent. Please read the whole blog post on this question.
What federal programs make a landlord subject to CARES Act restrictions?
A full list of programs is available from the National Housing Law Project’s CARES Act Eviction Moratorium Summary, but it includes landlords who participate in public housing, Section 8, programs for people who are elderly or disabled, Low Income Housing Tax Credit, and many rural housing programs.
Critically, the CARES Act also protects anyone who rents from a landlord whose mortgage is backed by the federal government’s mortgage programs (FHA, Fannie Mae, or Freddie Mac). This includes properties with only 1-4 units as well as multifamily units.
How can I find out whether my landlord’s mortgage is backed by FHA, Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac?
Good question! For people who live in multifamily units, the National Low Income Housing Coalition has a table and map of (almost) all the multifamily properties insured by a federal housing program.
Finding out whether a house or other 1-4 unit property is a “covered property” will be more difficult. Sometimes that kind of information can be deduced from county land records, but not always. And, we don’t exactly recommend asking your landlord whether the house is a “covered property” under the CARES Act. I wish we had a better answer for this problem.
Do I have to pay utilities?
Yes. If your lease agreement requires you to pay utilities, you still need to pay utilities. If your utilities are included in your rent payment, your landlord should (as a good person) continue to provide those utilities to you. Note: some utility companies in Kentucky have promised not to shut off services during the crisis.
What do I do if my landlord shuts off my water? Electric? Cable? Internet?
Call the utility company and see if it will restore service. See if you can get the service put in your name.
Call a lawyer. If your landlord has shut off utilities, this could be an unlawful ouster and you need legal help, stat. (Sorry, solutions to a utility shut-off problem will depend on the facts of your situation, including where you live in the state and what utility you’re deprived of. No easy answers.)
What do I do if my landlord tells me to move?
Everybody is stressed right now. Just like you’re stressed about paying rent, your landlord is probably stressed about making a mortgage payment, or paying employees, or whatever: maybe your debt-free, greedy landlord is just stressed about not making as much money as he or she normally does.
If your landlord tells you to move out, tell your landlord that you are not going to move until it is safe to move. Right now, it is not safe to find new housing and move into that new housing. These renter protections are in place for a reason: they save lives. Don’t let your landlord put your life and the lives of others at risk by moving because of your landlord’s threats.
While you’re telling your landlord you’re not going anywhere for the time being, you can also take this opportunity to tell your landlord what your plan is for catching up on rent payments.
What do I do if my landlord locks me out? Moves my stuff to the curb while I’m gone?
Call the police. Take pictures. Take video. Narrate the video with what happened. What you see. Then, call a lawyer.
What do I do if law enforcement officials are helping the landlord move my stuff or overseeing the process?
That shouldn’t happen. The Governor’s Order explicitly says so. Show them the Governor’s Order. Tell them this shouldn’t be happening. Take video (if it’s safe). Then, call a lawyer.
My landlord told me that the courts are “still accepting” evictions or that “evictions start on [insert date before July 1st here]” or that they’re “still sending evictions to Court.” Is that true?
No, that’s not true. Please contact an attorney to review these statements.
My landlord has told me he is going to send my account to collections? What does that mean and can he do that?
In a situation where a renter can’t/doesn’t pay rent, landlords can file two lawsuits: one to get a tenant out of the property (physical possession) and another to get a money judgment against a person (for destruction of property, unpaid rent, etc.) For now, landlords cannot file the lawsuit to get physical possession (evictions are technically called “forcible detainer” actions in Kentucky).
However, there’s no Order or law preventing landlords from filing the lawsuit to collect unpaid rent. So, you may be receiving letters or phone calls from a debt collector or debt collection attorney. Or, you may receive papers (a Summons and Complaint) for a collection lawsuit.
It’s very important to file an Answer to that lawsuit. Seek legal help. If you do not file an Answer to that lawsuit, the landlord wins by default. Plus, if your landlord (or your landlord’s attorney or debt collection company) is charging fees they’re not allowed to charge, you may have counterclaims that might help you avoid eviction and/or recover damages from your landlord. #TheWormWillTurn
My landlord has told me he will accept work or sexual favors in exchange for rent. What do I do?
Okay, this is called a quid pro quo: something for something else.
First, don’t do sex things with your landlord in exchange for rent. Unfortunately, this kind of coercive conduct is not rare in Kentucky. Sexual harassment is sexual assault.
If your landlord suggests sex things in exchange for rent, report him (you know it’s a him) to the Kentucky Human Rights Commission and find a lawyer. The Human Rights Commission enforces Kentucky's civil rights laws, which prohibits discrimination based on (among other things) gender and national origin. So, if your landlord is coercing sexual favors in exchange for rent from you (a woman and/or a person without documents), he may be violating Kentucky's civil rights laws if he's not also coercing sexual favors from men and/or U.S. citizens.
And, if you did what you needed to do to survive, it is not your fault. Help is always available through the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE.
Second, if you do decide to paint a fence or mow lawns or something in exchange for rent, make sure you document the agreement. It doesn’t have to be a formal, signed document (though that would be nice). Text your landlord and say, “I’m going to mow those yards today. This will be in exchange for May rent as we discussed.” Then, take pictures of the mowed yards, text those to your landlord, and save the texts and the pictures yourself somewhere safe.
What if I’m living with an abusive partner and I need him or her out?
Governor Beshear’s Executive Order about evictions does not affect your right to get a Domestic Violence Order (DVO) from a judge ordering your abuser to vacate your rented home or apartment. For help with this, please contact the legal aid organization in your area.
I heard that Governor Beshear has a process that allows landlords to file for an exemption from his “no evictions” Order. Is this true?
Yes. This is true. But, this process won’t affect you unless your landlord already has an order from a judge to evict you. If that’s the case, you may be subject to eviction sooner rather than later.
If your landlord does not have an eviction order from a judge (this will be the case for almost every renter reading this), the Kentucky Supreme Court’s suspension of eviction filings means that even if a landlord gets an exemption from Governor Beshear the landlord still will not be able to file an eviction in court until July 1st. If your landlord tells you he's going to get an exemption to evict you, don’t fall for it.
(Also, these exemptions are only available if the landlord alleges the renter is engaged in dangerous criminal activity or poses a serious threat to public health or safety. But, again, the big message here is landlords cannot file new evictions until July 1st in Kentucky.)
What if I want renters to have more and better protections in Kentucky all the time, not just in a pandemic?
Whether you’re a renter or not, you can sign up for action alerts from KEJC to learn about opportunities to take action locally and in Frankfort to secure better protections for renters across Kentucky.
Additionally, whether you are a renter or homeowner, two organizations are collecting information on Kentuckians and their housing experiences. You can fill out surveys at Lexington Fair Housing Council (Kentucky-wide) and the Root Cause Research Center (Louisville) to provide advocates with more information about housing in Kentucky.
I’ve read this whole post. Are you my lawyer now?
No. The Kentucky Equal Justice Center is a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization that works across the Commonwealth on issues affecting people experiencing poverty. We are providing this information for the public’s benefit at a time of crisis. While we are all united in our efforts to prevent COVID–19 from spreading further, each of our circumstances are different. If you are having trouble paying rent or have another problem with your landlord, please seek actual legal advice from an attorney who can advise you on your specific situation. What’s right for you may not be right for someone else.
How do I find legal help?
Legal Aid Organizations
There are four Legal Aid organizations in Kentucky. Legal Aid firms exist to help people who do not have enough money to hire a private attorney for their civil matter. You can find out what organization serves your area by searching for your city here. If you live in Louisville or the surrounding counties, you will likely be served by the Legal Aid Society. Legal Aid of the Bluegrass serves northern, northeastern, and central Kentucky. The Appalachian Research and Defense Fund (AppalReD) serves eastern and southern Kentucky while Kentucky Legal Aid works in western Kentucky.
Lawyer Referral Services
Many areas have lawyer referral services run by the local bar associations. They are a good resource to consult to begin trying to find an attorney in your area. If you get referred to an attorney and he or she can't help, I encourage you to ask him or her if they know any attorney (or attorneys) who might be better suited to help you.
Louisville Lawyer Referral Service (this serves surrounding counties, as well)
Two legal organizations that may have members in your area are the National Association of Consumer Advocates and the Kentucky Justice Association. Both can likely help you get a start in finding an attorney in your area to review your case. NACA's website has a "Find An Attorney" feature that helps you find a consumer lawyer close to you. The Kentucky Justice Association has a similar search feature for people seeking an attorney.