Courtney Thompson, a senior at Western Kentucky University, was having a birthday party for a pair of friends at her house in October 2016. All night, people complained that the toilets were taking forever to flush in her house on Ogden Avenue in Bowling Green. Thompson brushed the comments off and chalked them up to her house being old. She and her roommates were going to bed that night when they heard running water.
“We go downstairs and our basement is filling with sewage,” Thompson said. “It’s like 3 a.m.. We can’t call our landlord in the middle of the night.”
They shut the water off that night to get the sewage to stop pouring in. Thompson and her roommates called their landlord the next morning. Their landlord told them they would send someone out as soon as possible. Three days went by before anyone came by, Thompson said. The problem, she would later find out, was roots in the pipes further down the line.
For days, Thompson and her roommates found places to shower at friends’ houses or apartments. They found places to do laundry. They had to remember to use the bathroom before leaving campus. A double major at WKU with double minors, Thompson said the ordeal added another level to her already hectic schedule. S
“We had to clean up the sewage ourselves,” Thompson said. “It happened again later. When it kept happening, [they] said this is how the house is, and you can accept that as it is, or you can pay the fee to cancel your lease and leave.”
Thompson and her roommates said they discussed reporting the issue to city code officials. But they were fearful of repercussions from their landlord or being kicked out. Threat of retaliatory eviction or action by a landlord is only one of many protections student renters lack in Bowling Green.
I. Lack of Protection & Clarity for Students
Students at WKU lack rights and protections as renters that the majority of college students in the U.S. have, such as guaranteed livable conditions, notice regarding entry or fees, and clarity on security deposits and eviction process. That’s because Kentucky and Arkansas remain the only two states in the nation without statewide protections for tenants and landlords in their laws. And bigger college towns in Kentucky, such as Lexington and Louisville, have protections for renters because they adopted the Uniform Residential Landlord Tenant Act (URLTA) at the municipal level.
With URLTA, retaliatory conduct, including increased rent, refusal to renew lease, or termination of a lease, is prohibited. Thompson, and other students at WKU, are at the mercy of their landlords and their leases.
With URLTA, retaliatory conduct, including increased rent, refusal to renew lease, or termination of a lease, is prohibited. Thompson, and other students at WKU, are
In part to the university, Bowling Green is disproportionately a renting city: two in three households are renter-occupied.
WKU’s student population has grown by over 4 percent from 2008 to 2016. Average tuition costs for undergraduates rose by nearly 40 percent over the same period. Even with new student housing in production, Western Kentucky’s campus housing accommodates less than a third of the university’s undergraduates.
In Bowling Green, the lease is the law. Without basic protections in state or local legislation for renters, students at WKU have no guarantee of standard of habitability. This provides tenants with legal options to deal with unsafe or unsanitary living conditions.
Brian J. Dufresne is the Housing Unit Manager for Legal Aid of the Bluegrass. Dufresne said in an email that WKU students face potential habitability issues, less fit housing and unresponsive landlords.
“In Kentucky, most folks don’t realize that there is not a warranty of habitability, which means that those who rent homes to others do not need to warrant that it is suitable and fit for living,” said Dufresne.
Bowling Green landlords have no responsibility to give tenants 48 hours notice before entering their premises, unless explicitly stated in the lease. Documentation of damages and repairs, regarding security deposit return is not required. For these issues, Dufresne said he encourages all tenants to carefully read their lease before signing anything.
“With URLTA, it’s all in black and white,” Dufresne said. “Without it, both landlords and tenant students would have a lot less knowledge about what they might face dealing with an eviction.”
Uniform responsibilities for tenants and landlords could make court systems more efficient. With less variance in the landlord-tenant relationship, students could be better prepared for what to expect.
Under URLTA, eviction procedures and others are clearly laid out. Tenants have seven days upon written notice from their landlord to pay rent before being evicted. Retaliatory evictions, or other actions, are addressed and prohibited. In Bowling Green, student tenants can be evicted within days for failure to pay rent.
Eviction filings in Kentucky rose 8 percent between 2010 and 2013, according to a 2016 issue of Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. Only two states saw larger increases over the same period.
The lack of uniformity and clarity in tenant/landlord issues in Bowling Green leaves little understanding of what to expect for WKU students as they enter the rental market.
II. Legal Aid & Assistance for Students
Louis Waddle was in California, thousands of miles from his house on Stubbins Street in Bowling Green, working on an internship over winter break. Waddle’s roommate Ryan called him on Jan. 2 and started by saying he had some bad news.
“He told me, ‘Your ceiling’s gone and there’s water all over the place . . . I'm too drunk to deal with it’,” Waddle said.
A pipe had burst in the ceiling above his room. With both bathrooms on his side of the house and all the water pipes on his side of the house, Waddle had suffered the brunt of the damages.
Ryan called the utility company shortly after coming home and finding the pipe burst, and they swiftly shut off the water. A day later, Waddle’s landlord had people come take care of the problem. They put everything on the floor in black, plastic trash bags. Still soaking wet, the bags were placed outside and froze. Many of the bags contained items of Waddle’s including clothes and other belongings.
“I’d say maybe $400 or $500 worth of damage,” Waddle said. “Not as much as it could have been. If the underside of my mattress wasn’t waterproof, everything under my bed would have been ruined.”
When Waddle came back to Bowling Green on Jan 19 for classes, his room still had no walls or ceiling. He called his landlord and they managed to put the drywall up that day.
For a week and a half, Waddle slept in the living room, waiting on a ceiling, until he finally called his landlord, telling him he wanted in his room as soon as possible, unable to focus on his schoolwork.
Waddle spent the next two months without insulation above his ceiling, living in what he called a drywall apartment. URLTA requires landlords to maintain reasonable heat between Oct. 1 and May 1. He received no reimbursement for the time his room was being repaired or for his belongings being destroyed.
Waddle said pipes had apparently burst earlier last summer as he and his roommates were still moving in, but said the issue was addressed. Under URLTA, if a health or safety problem arises again within six months, even it’s been addressed before, the tenant may terminate the lease with 14-day notice. Waddle still lives on Stubbins Street, but said he has already decided to live somewhere else next year
“I should have had renters insurance, but I didn’t,” Waddle said.
Without URLTA’s protections or renters insurance, little can be done for students in cases like Waddle’s. At WKU, students can seek legal advice for tenant/landlord disputes with Student Legal Services (SLS), which aims to provide affordable legal service to students.
Julie Shadoan, clinic director for SLS, is a full-time WKU professor with a discipline in paralegal studies. Shadoan said if tenants understand what they are signing, they won’t get caught in one-sided leases.
“It’s very case-specific, what the issue is, what the defense is,” Shadoan said. “Unless you’re saying you signed the lease under duress, or you weren’t able to understand the lease for some reason, there might not be a whole lot we can do.”
Approximately only one in four cases students bring to SLS are able to renegotiated or overturned in the student’s favor, Shadoan said. The majority of tenant-landlord disputes SLS handles deal with post-lease issues, such as security deposits and collection matters. She said some students do come in on the front-end to discuss possible leases and understand their rights, but not enough.
Shadoan said she believes cultural differences, language barrier, and lack of understanding lead to the majority of issues for these students.
Since its foundation in 1981, the International Center of Kentucky, a refugee resettlement agency, has helped resettle over 10,000 refugees, many of them in Bowling Green.
A 2008 study by the city of Bowling Green on impediments to fair housing locally cited language and cultural differences as the top issue. At WKU, international students made up an estimated 6 percent of the student population in Fall 2016.
Shadoan said she estimates about half the cases SLS deals with involve international students. This disproportionate relationship is evidence of the effects the lack of clarity has on these students. Reading a 15-page-lease-agreement can be difficult for any student, Shadoan said.
“The leases here really run the gambit,” Shadoan said. “I’ve seen leases that are a page long. I’ve seen leases that are eighteen pages long. It really just depends on who the landlord is.”
In addition to her responsibilities at WKU, Shadoan, herself, is a private landlord in Bowling Green. With her international tenants, Shadoan said she sits down with a translator, if necessary, to make sure they understand the lease. Most landlords are not willing to go to this length, however, Shadoan said.
While she understands the call for URLTA and retail protections in the area, Shadoan said she sees both sides of the debate. She said she has doubts on whether putting these protections in place would prevent bad landlords from taking advantage of tenants.
Shadoan said she isn’t sure if regulation is necessary because she believes most landlords in Bowling Green operate the right way. Shadoan, speaking as a landlord, said that URLTA inhibits on the freedom to run one’s private business, she said.
“It’s somewhat of a power play here,” Shadoan said. “We have local property management and commercial owners who are very influential in this community. Our mayor is a landlord. The opinion of the landlords is not going to change that much and the political power of the landlords is not going to change that much, in my opinion.”
Shadoan said the best strategy involves a widespread effort to educate students as renters. With recent budget woes at WKU, she said she understands this might be difficult to accomplish.
III. Student Support & Awareness
n 2014, Jay Todd Richey said he wanted to become involved in something directly affecting the Bowling Green community. President of the Student Government Association from 2016-17, Richey spoke with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a grass roots organization across the state. Richey scheduled a meeting with the director.
“I asked her to tell me the most pressing issue facing the Bowling Green community,” Richey said in an email. “She said housing justice.”
Richey said he began researching the issue and quickly saw its importance.
“The lack of codified legal responsibilities for both landlords and renters and absence of uniform laws that ensure leases provide basic legal protections for renters contributes to rates of homelessness from increased evictions,” Richey said.
Richey co-founded the Student Coalition for Renters’ Rights (SCRR) in 2014 with his friend James Line, former Student Government Association Chief of Staff. The organization aimed to mobilize students and the community to advocate and consider housing justice. The ultimate need, Richey said, is policy change.
SCRR is not an “anti-landlord” organization, with many landlords from the area in favor of URLTA, already practicing within its guidelines, Richey said.
“It’s the slumlords that have much of the power that needs to be taken away,” Richey said.
In late 2017, SCRR compiled the Student Renters’ Handbook. The handbook compared leases from 10 major property managers in Bowling Green to an URLTA compliant one.
Of the 10 leases compared, only one required 48-hour notice before entry into the premises. Only half clearly outlined amount of rent due and eviction process. Just two stated the tenant is not required to pay attorney legal fees. Two categories, provisions for responsibilities of repairs and supplying heat and running water, were covered by all 10 leases.
SCRR also recommends students include the following clause in their lease to ensure it complies with URLTA.
“Both parties agree to be bound by the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, KRS §§ 383.500 – 383.715.”
“As is the founding mission of SCRR, students need to be the ones to lead this change,” Richey said. “Ultimately, it will help a lot of people and ensure people have basic rights and responsibilities in their housing agreements.”
Arthur Crosby is the executive director for Lexington Fair Housing Council, a nonprofit fair housing agency in Kentucky. Crosby said college students everywhere face general landlord-tenant issues such as repairs and maintenance. Stories like Waddle’s and Thompson’s happen all across the state. What URLTA provides is an even playing field, Crosby said.
“It provides a much more guided structure for how these issues play out,” Crosby said. “You can universally know what to expect and, therefore, tell people what to expect.”
Bad landlords might be more inclined to prey on students because they know they’re unexperienced and naive, Crosby said. As Bowling Green becomes larger, Crosby said, there is increased need for uniform protection for renters.
“Any opposition is probably a lack of understanding of how URLTA helps landlords and tenants” Crosby said.
Reporting contributed by Monica Kast
For further reporting on the lack of renters’ rights in Bowling Green, please visit http://monicakast-1.atavist.com/urlta