Toxic ‘forever chemicals’ poisoned water in this small Ky. town. The mayor didn’t warn residents. Thursday, Sep 22 2022 

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More Ky. youth are struggling with mental health. Are state lawmakers doing enough? Monday, Sep 19 2022 

Photo courtesy of the Kentucky Student Voice Team.

The Kentucky Student Voice Team was founded in 2012 and works to include young people in the creation of policies and legislation.

Esha Bajwa was just a middle schooler when she started struggling with depression. She likens the condition to a bad knee ache that comes and goes. She doesn’t always know what triggers the pain or how bad it will get.                

“There’s some moments where I walk on it, and I feel like I’m surviving. I’m doing great,” she said. “And then other times, it just hurts so bad that it consumes me.”

Bajwa remembers feeling guilty about her depression because she thought her parents faced worse challenges immigrating to America from Pakistan. So, she downplayed her struggles making friends at school and the stress she felt when her parents argued at home.

Her mental health hit a low in 2021, during her senior year at Fern Creek High School in Louisville. The pandemic had disrupted the last two years of her education and threatened her family’s stability. Her dad’s job laid him off, and his diabetes worsened. He spent several months in and out of hospitals. 

Bajwa took on more household responsibilities like cooking and cleaning — all the while feeling more and more isolated from her classmates and weathering the challenges of remote learning.

“I was really trying to keep the household afloat,” she said. “I put so much pressure on myself to help my family out that I did not take care of myself.”

Bajwa, now 18, is one of more than 130,000 young Kentuckians who report wrestling with anxiety and depression, a likely underreported rate, according to the 2022 KIDS COUNT Data Book released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation last month. The data comes from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ National Survey of Children’s Health.

Photo courtesy of Esha Bajwa.

Esha Bajwa, 18, recently graduated from Fern Creek High School and is now attending the University of Louisville.

At least 16% of Kentucky children ages 3 to 17 have depression or anxiety, the sixth highest rate in the nation, according to the foundation report. The rate has increased by nearly one-third since 2016.

Youth of color and young people who identify as LGBTQ experience disproportionately high rates of anxiety and depression.

Most public health officials agree that the country is amidst a youth mental health crisis. Many young people suffered trauma and loss due to the pandemic. They also have to contend with poverty, hunger, violence and other risk factors that affect mental health. 

“There are predicate factors,” said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, a children’s advocacy organization. “I think sometimes we, as a Commonwealth, don’t want to draw the dots between poverty and mental health or between violence and mental health. But it’s all connected.”

The U.S. Surgeon General published an advisory in 2021 urging government officials to address the social and economic barriers that contribute to poor mental health for young people. 

Kentucky has made some progress. The Kentucky General Assembly passed several bills related to youth mental health this year. One of the laws allows students to take mental health days off from school. Another emphasizes the need for more mental health professionals in schools

Youth advocates still say state lawmakers could be doing more to help young people – and that they’ve made matters worse in some cases by passing several laws that could harm young people’s mental health, especially youth from marginalized backgrounds. 

“We have regressive legislative measures that gathered steam last session — some took hold, and some didn’t,” Brooks said. “The results of those measures are only going to increase mental and behavioral health issues for kids.”

The intersection of policy and youth mental health

Having a safe and stable place to call home and consistent access to food and income is crucial for creating the conditions that support good mental health, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health. The organization says this means creating equitable government policies and eliminating discrimination.

House Bill 7, passed into Kentucky law earlier this year, added more requirements for people trying to access public benefits like unemployment and food assistance. Critics said the measure revealed “a bias against the poor,” claiming it created more barriers to support for the state’s most vulnerable residents. Supporters of the bill said the restrictions were necessary to prevent fraud and reduce dependency on public assistance. In May, KyCIR reported that the bill was heavily influenced by model legislation from the Foundation of Government Accountability, a conservative think tank based in Florida. The foundation has pushed for welfare restrictions in Kentucky for years. They did not respond to requests for comment. 

House Bill 63 mandated that every K-12 school in Kentucky have a school resource officer (SRO) or develop a plan to hire one in an effort to prevent school shootings. But some argue that the presence of police in schools could cause harm, especially for students of color and those with disabilities, who are disciplined at disproportionately higher rates.

“It just goes to show how little they consider the intersectionality of mental health,” said Bajwa, who now serves on the Kentucky Student Voice Team, a group that aims to include youth voices in state policy and research. “You can’t say that you care about mental health if you’re also going to implement resource officers that are going to make students feel uncomfortable and punish them more severely.”

Some legislators disagree. 

Republican State Rep. Kevin Bratcher, who is running for re-election in 2023, sponsored HB 63. He said he didn’t see why the presence of student resource officers would impact mental health.

“Having proper and ready security inside a school building should not be a burden to any child’s mental health,” he wrote in an email to KyCIR. “If it is, then it would be best to identify and treat such a problem before that child graduates into society, and then must deal with the issue as an adult, with adult consequences.”

Various research studies have found that youth are criminalized more often in schools with police officers, which can hurt academic achievement and land more students in the juvenile justice system.

KyCIR contacted 11 other lawmakers who sponsored the resource officer bill, but none responded to requests for comment.

Kentucky lawmakers also passed Senate Bill 83 this year, prohibiting transgender girls from participating in school sports that don’t align with their biological sex. Supporters of the bill said it wouldn’t be fair to allow biologically male students to participate in girls’ sports because they have physical advantages. But critics, including Gov. Andy Beshear, called the bill discriminatory and said it would deny transgender students access to educational opportunities comparable to their peers.

Joe Bargione, a licensed psychologist and lead trainer for the Bounce Coalition, says policies like that – and the public discourse around them – can harm students psychologically. 

“The groups that have the highest rates of suicide or attempted suicides are our LGBTQ students,” he said. “It’s tough growing up for any child. But then, if I see that people in my community are trying to pass policies that devalue me as a child, that can have a truly negative effect.”

More than 23% of gay, lesbian and bisexual high school students attempted suicide in 2019 compared to 6% of heterosexual students, according to national data from the Kids Count Data Book.

Anxiety and depression rates are also disproportionately higher among children of color. In the U.S., 9% of high schoolers attempted suicide in 2019, but that rate was more than 25% for American Indian students, 12% for Black students and 13% for students who identify with two or more races.

Students speak up

Photo courtesy of the Kentucky Department of Education.

Charleigh Browning (left), a senior at Marion County High School, and other members of the Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council speak on student mental health at the Kentucky legislature’s Interim Joint Committee on Education meeting on Aug. 16. They were joined by Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman (middle), who cited data on student mental health.

Legislators have taken some important steps to protect youth mental health. Senate Bill 102 was passed this year, requiring schools to track the number of mental health professionals in their building to meet the recommended 250-to-1 ratio of students to counselors. However, the legislature did not include funding to help schools to hire more counselors. 

Connor Flick, a recent high school graduate and another Kentucky Student Voice Team member, said the Commonwealth still has a long way to go.

“My mental health was never necessarily a priority,” said Flick, who graduated from Connor High School in Boone County this year. “The priority was always getting the work done and pushing yourself forward.”

Bajwa agreed. She said that she had little interaction with the counselor at her high school besides talks about colleges and a once-a-year suicide prevention video they played for the whole student body. She said she remembers filling out forms to request a visit with the mental health counselor, but no one ever followed up.

The Kentucky Department of Education’s student advisory council echoed these concerns with lawmakers at a legislative committee meeting in Frankfort last month. The council cited youth mental health summits and surveys conducted with young people across the state in the past few years to illustrate the mental health challenges that students were facing, including isolation, stress about the health of their families and concern about how they would pay bills. 

They asked legislators to help provide more comprehensive suicide prevention, expand mental health resources and treatment in schools, provide more training and increase the number of excused mental health absences students can use. 

Legislators at the meeting seemed receptive to their ideas and agreed that student mental health should be a priority. They also brought up concerns and questions about how to effectively implement the recommendations without overwhelming teachers and keeping students from taking advantage of mental health days.

Supporting schools

Bargione says access to mental health resources, trauma-informed education and crisis prevention training for students, educators and staff is one of the best ways to help kids. 

But while school counselors, teachers and administrators can help catch mental health concerns early so issues can be adequately addressed, that doesn’t mean schools can do it all on their own.

“We’re putting so much on the plates of our educators,” Bargione said. “In addition to the mental health pieces, they still gotta to do reading, writing, math and critical thinking skills. So how do we make that all fit?”

Michelle Sircy, school counseling specialist at Jefferson County Public Schools, said there must be adequate systems to ensure school counselors can do what they are trained for.

While the Kentucky Department of Education recommends school counselors dedicate 60% of their time to counseling and direct student services, she said they often get pulled onto other duties such as supervising hallways and bus loading or coordinating standardized testing.

“If we have our only trained mental health professionals doing other things besides providing mental health counseling to students, we’re really doing a disservice to our students,” Sircy said.

Sircy said the state is headed in the right direction by focusing on hiring more mental health professionals. But she urged lawmakers to consider creating a requirement about how school counselors need to spend their time. She also thinks Kentucky should expand its suicide prevention efforts. Currently, state law requires students to receive one suicide prevention workshop a year for 6th through 12th grade.

“Sixth grade is way too late to start suicide prevention,” she said. “Our students are struggling with suicidal ideation at a much, much younger age. So, how can we be more proactive instead of reactive with students’ mental health?”

If you or a loved one struggle with mental health or have suicidal thoughts and would like emotional support, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 — or 1-800-273-8255. Para Espanol haz clic aqui, o llame al número 988, o 1-888-628-9454.

Local mental health resources:

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A corporate landlord’s takeover spotlights racial inequities and displacement fears in west Louisville Wednesday, Aug 24 2022 

Stacey Young lived in a home that was bought by an Amherst Residential subsidiary in January. He moved from the house earlier this year after dealing with maintenance issues, communication woes and a stifling rent hike.

Photo: J. Tyler Franklin

Stacey Young lived in a home that was bought by an Amherst Residential subsidiary in January. He moved from the house earlier this year after dealing with maintenance issues, communication woes and a stifling rent hike.

This investigation is part of KyCIR’s Housing Project. Complete this survey to share tips, experiences and questions that can help shape our reporting.

Stacey Young said he got a letter late last year informing him that an out-of-state company had bought the bungalow he’s rented for nearly a decade in west Louisville’s Shawnee neighborhood. 

Young immediately had questions about the Texas-based firm: 

Would the new owner take care of the property? Would rent go up? Would Young, his wife and their three children get pushed out? 

“I’m feeling like I’m walking on eggshells, I don’t know what I’m dealin’ with,” he said. 

More than six months later, Young and his family were packing their things. 

Young said the property owner sent him an email in June saying he’d need to renew his lease and agree to pay $1,500 for rent – a near $670 increase compared to what he had previously paid – if he wanted to stay. 

“I can’t afford that,” Young said. “I’m out.”

The company that bought Young’s house is a subsidiary of Amherst Residential, a private firm based in Austin, Texas that’s building an empire of single-family homes across Jefferson County.

Amherst owns about 1,330 properties in Louisville purchased through at least 31 different subsidiaries — a catalog they’ve paid more than $152 million to build since 2016, according to an analysis of county property records by The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. Nearly all the properties are single-family homes. 

The company has acquired more houses in Louisville than any other buyer this year – over 430 – according to our analysis. The majority of Amherst’s acquisitions, about seven in 10, were properties in west Louisville neighborhoods, including Shawnee, Chickasaw, Park Hill and Russell.

Amherst has emerged as the biggest private property owner in the area, where most residents are Black, and people are more likely to rent rather than own their home. 

Amherst’s subsidiaries are listed in records under the same address as the company’s Austin headquarters. They have obscure or abbreviated names – like AVRM LLC or BAF 2 LLC, which purchased Young’s home from his previous landlord in Shawnee. Amherst tenants are more familiar with Main Street Renewal. That’s the property management arm that handles maintenance requests, listings and other rental matters for Amherst.

KyCIR spoke with more than a dozen people living in Amherst-owned rental properties. Some complained about bad communication and hidden fees. Nearly all cited property maintenance as a major problem. 

We reviewed city records and found that one in 10 Amherst properties has an open property maintenance case for alleged violations ranging from uncut grass and busted doors to standing water, sewer backups and other issues. 

No other property owner has more open cases than Amherst, according to city records. And compared to the five private entities that own the most property in Louisville, Amherst has the highest percent of properties with an open case. Second was a nonprofit group with nearly 380 properties, of which 8% had open cases, while no other entity had more than 5% of its properties with an open case.

Records show Amherst’s west Louisville properties account for more than a third of its alleged code violations. But just 17% of Amherst’s housing portfolio is in the area, where the company spent $26.6 million buying more than 300 properties between January and May. 

Amherst spokesperson Alexandra Clements said in an emailed statement that the company is providing a vital need in communities amid a “historic under supply of single-family homes and restrictive mortgage lending qualifications.” 

The company repairs and renovates homes and rents to people who often don’t qualify for a mortgage loan, Clements said. Main Street Renewal employs a 20-person property management team to service tenants, hires local businesses as subcontractors, and supports residents by helping connect them with financial counseling, emergency food assistance and other resources, she said.

“We deeply care about our residents, the city and the communities we serve,” she said.

Amherst and other investor-backed landlords are transforming neighborhoods across the country as they expand their portfolios of family homes for rent, shrinking opportunities for people to buy homes and reducing affordability by raising rents, said Elora Lee Raymond, an assistant professor of city and regional planning at the Georgia Institute of Technology. 

She said the companies tend to evict more tenants and drive gentrification and displacement – especially in communities of color. Black households have also faced long-lasting barriers to homeownership such as lending discrimination, racist housing policies like redlining and income inequality, which have widened racial wealth gaps. 

Many Black communities and households are still dealing with the lingering effects of the 2008 financial crisis and the rash of foreclosures that cost many U.S. households their homes but hit Black and Latino families, who were more likely than whites to be saddled with high-cost subprime mortgages from lenders, particularly hard. 

In 2019, the Urban Institute, a nonprofit policy group, reported that Black ownership rates had dropped “to levels not seen since the 1960s, when private race-based discrimination was legal.” 

In June, Raymond warned lawmakers at a U.S. House committee hearing about the negative impacts companies like Amherst can have on neighborhoods.

“The loss of homeownership opportunities and rising cost of owner-occupied housing creates lasting harm to the new generation of homeowners and to racial and ethnic minorities historically barred from homeownership,” she said during the hearing.

Raymond urged policymakers to mandate rent controls, eviction reforms and strengthen tenant protections.

In Louisville, city officials know — and aren’t surprised — that investor-backed companies like Amherst are buying homes here and across the county. 

It’s disheartening, said Marilyn Harris, the director of the Louisville Metro Office of Housing and Community Development. 

But she said there’s not much the city can do to stop the companies from buying homes. 

Jessica Wethington, a spokesperson for Mayor Greg Fischer, said pretty much the same – that the local government can’t interfere with the private market. In Cincinnati, Ohio, a government agency outbid private investors to buy nearly 200 homes that the city plans to renovate and rent to tenants at affordable prices. But Wethington said no plans like that are brewing in Louisville.

Advocates and council members want to enact policies that increase rental market transparency and protect tenants but worry that any legislative proposals dealing with landlord and tenant relations would be limited by the state’s existing Uniform Landlord Tenant Act. 

The act bans local governments from enacting any other ordinance that relates directly to “landlord and tenant relationships” and an array of housing policies. 

Meanwhile, housing experts see no signs that companies like Amherst will slow their expansion into cities like Louisville. 

And without action from policymakers, tenants and neighborhoods are left bearing the brunt of the burgeoning industry’s impact. 

Property maintenance issues

Stacey Young's Amherst rental house in Shawnee, west Louisville.

Photo: J. Tyler Franklin

The home Stacey Young lived in on 41st Street for nearly a decade before it was bought by a subsidiary of Amherst Residential.

Young, 48, moved to west Louisville as a teenager. He works as a line cook, and his wife is a bookkeeper at a public school. He said they had a tough time with Amherst’s property management arm, Main Street Renewal, before they moved.

He’s not an email guy. But he said he could rarely get the property manager on the phone; they only discussed maintenance requests and other issues via text or email. Days would pass before he’d get a response. When issues were fixed, Young said the work was often shoddy. Some problems never got handled.

An Amherst spokesperson said the company worked with Young to resolve several issues — including a leaky roof and clogged drains.

Young said the roof started leaking again. And after the drains were cleared, he was surprised to see a $100 charge added to his monthly rent bill. After that, Young said, he often decided to let maintenance issues go unfixed out of fear the landlord would charge him for the work. 

Or he rolled up his sleeves.

In April of this year, Louisville Metro code enforcement officers opened a property maintenance case on Young’s home for a busted gutter, overgrown bushes, an overflowing trash can, a broken-down car in the driveway and high grass, according to records.

The inspector noted that Young assured he’d clean up the trash and take care of other issues. Young didn’t remember the trash issue when KyCIR interviewed him, but he said he got rid of the broken car – and instead of waiting for the company to remedy the issue, he and his teenage son got to work clearing the brush.  He worried that he’d get stuck with a bill if the violation escalated to a citation and fee.

“I’m sure they’ll try to put that back on me,” he said.

After code enforcement officers levied a $600 citation against the property last month, Young said Amherst tried to tack it onto his monthly bill. He’s moved from the house now, but still worries he’ll have to fight the fine. 

The property maintenance case on Young’s former rental home is still open, according to city records. It’s one of more than 130 open cases at Amherst-owned properties that city code enforcement officers are currently investigating. Over a third of those cases are in zip codes encompassing or including parts of west Louisville. 

Caitlin Bowling, a spokesperson for the Louisville Metro Department of Codes and Regulations, said the city “is taking action.”

‘’We have 130 open cases, which by definition is taking action,” she said in an emailed statement.

The Louisville Metro property maintenance code states that the property owner is responsible for ensuring properties adhere to local ordinances, and occupants are responsible for keeping their space “clean, sanitary and safe.”

An Amherst spokesperson said the company works with every tenant to promptly resolve maintenance issues, but it’s up to tenants to ensure their home is in line with property regulations — and any violation is a tenant’s responsibility.

KyCIR talked with several tenants who live in homes with open property maintenance cases. We saw busted gutters, broken windows, and the scars of recent fires. Tenants talked about mice, mold and trouble getting the grass and hedges cut. Several of them said that their previous landlords would handle most of the landscaping work, but that Amherst tried to push the responsibility on them or that they were confused about who was supposed to do the work.

A pair of homes on 42nd Street that are owned by a subsidiary of Amherst Residential. Shavon Bibbs moved from the home on the left after dealing with communication issues and maintenance problems.

Photo: J. Tyler Franklin

A pair of homes on 42nd Street that are owned by a subsidiary of Amherst Residential. Shavon Bibbs moved from the home on the left after dealing with communication issues and maintenance problems.

Shavon Bibbs rented an Amherst-owned home on North 42nd Street that is the subject of a property code violation case that’s been open since late January — more than two weeks after it was bought by Amherst’s subsidiary, BAF 2 LLC. The reason: an unkempt yard and because the home isn’t listed in the city’s rental registry. 

In March, records show a city code enforcement officer noted that Bibbs had cleaned up the property and the fine would be waived “because the owner is putting the fines on the tenant.”

Those aren’t the only issues Bibbs said she’s had with the company. She said she got fed up with Amherst shortly after the company bought the home because its property management company failed to communicate how to set up rent payments or report maintenance requests. 

Soon after, her toilet wouldn’t stop running and her water bill climbed to nearly $1,000 a month, she said.

Earlier this summer, Bibbs started looking for a new landlord.

“I’m ready to be done with them,” she said.

A few blocks away, on North 43rd Street, Alyssa Woods’s Amherst-owned rental home stands out from the others on the block in Shawnee with neat yards and clean windows. 

City records show code enforcement officers opened a property maintenance case there last month because the house had overgrown grass and weeds in the front and back yard that needed cutting. Woods said she’s had trouble getting that done since an Amherst subsidiary bought the home in January. 

Her gutter is also rusted, sagging and leaking. Bullet holes dot the front siding. Woods said water seeps through the walls. She worries about her kids getting sick from what she said is mold on the floor.

“It’s not livable,” Woods said.

The home on 43rd Street that Alyssa Woods said is plagued by maintenance issues.

Photo: J. Tyler Franklin

The home on 43rd Street that Alyssa Woods said is plagued by maintenance issues.

Amherst didn’t respond to questions about Bibbs and Woods’s property maintenance issues or complaints.

But Clements, the Amherst spokesperson, said the company plans to invest $55,000 per home on renovations in the coming years. Already, she said the company has invested more than $30 million to repair and renovate homes “with durable flooring, new roofs and siding, stainless steel appliances and other high-quality amenities.”

Josh Poe, a tenant organizer with the Louisville-based Root Cause Research Center, said city officials should more rigorously enforce the property maintenance code at properties owned by corporate landlords. 

“They’re not being aggressive enough,” he said.

Property maintenance is a key issue for District 5 Council Member Donna Purvis, a Democrat whose west Louisville district covers or includes parts of the Chickasaw, Shawnee, Portland and Russell neighborhoods.

She hears frequent complaints from constituents about properties with junked cars, overgrown yards, or busted windows.

Photo: Jacob Ryan

A vacant Amherst-owned property in Louisville.

Purvis and several other Metro Council Democrats are sponsoring a proposed amendment to the city’s rental registry ordinance introduced in June that would require random code enforcement inspections at rental properties. The proposal is currently tabled in the council’s Public Works committee, which meets every other Tuesday.

Currently, the city doesn’t start property maintenance inspections unless someone files a complaint.

When KyCIR interviewed Purvis, she said she didn’t know much about Amherst or the company’s Louisville expansion. But she bemoaned the company’s track record of property maintenance issues and expansion across the city, especially in west Louisville.

“How did we let this happen?” she said.

Yet Purvis, like other Metro officials interviewed by KyCIR, said there’s not much the local government can do to stop the companies from buying up property. 

“This is an enterprising and free capital world,” she said. 

‘1 million houses’

Amherst is part of a broader trend. 

Other big investor-backed firms — like Blackstone, Tricon, and American Homes 4 Rent — are also buying thousands of family homes across the country, renting them out, and promising investors a return on the rent revenue over time with interest. 

A subsidiary of Blackstone, Home Partners of America, owns 30 homes in Louisville, according to online property records. The company’s rent-to-own program “enables families that would otherwise be locked out of traditional single-family housing to access homes they love,” a Blackstone spokesperson said in an emailed statement. 

He didn’t speak to some of the criticism that investor-backed landlords like Blackstone and Amherst have faced.

The companies’ access to investor cash is akin to a low-interest loan they can use to dominate tight housing markets by outbidding would-be homebuyers with favorable cash offers and buying more houses, said Desiree Fields, an associate professor of Geography and Global Metropolitan Studies at the University of California, Berkeley

“It is a type of financial engineering that is available to a particular type of actor in the financial world…because of the scale of assets that they control,” she said.

Fields said this relatively new industry can be traced to the 2008 housing crisis: With many of the people who lost their homes then pushed into the rental market, investors saw opportunities to profit. Black and Latino people were hit hardest by the foreclosure crisis. 

Amherst’s office in Austin is just a few miles from company CEO Sean Dobson’s sprawling, country club mansion that’s valued at more than $4 million, according to property records.

Dobson made billions from the mortgage industry in the years leading up to and just after the 2008 housing crisis. He turned to single-family home rentals in 2011, according to a 2019 profile in Fortune Magazine. 

Amherst Residential was founded in 2012 and last year reported owning or leasing more than 43,000 homes in 28 cities across the country, according to a 2021 company report. Their goal is one million homes, according to the profile.

“I have $5 billion to $6 billion from outside investors knocking on the door,” he told Fortune. “In the end, we’ll get to 1 million houses.”

Investor-backed companies like Amherst hold an incalculable advantage in the nation’s competitive housing market with access to lots of cash and technology that helps them review hundreds of home listings daily, Fields said.

“It’s the way the housing market is going,” she said. “It’s unequal and people just can’t compete against these companies.”

Paula Barmore, president of the Greater Louisville Association of Realtors, has been selling homes in Louisville for more than 20 years. 

A decade ago, she said there could be up to 10,000 homes for sale in the city at any given time. Today, there are only about 1,500.

So, she takes notice when a company like Amherst made hundreds of real estate transactions in the first half of the year.

“They’re changing the landscape of our neighborhoods,” she said. 

“We need to think about what we can do”

Young wasn’t surprised when KyCIR told him that Amherst has more parcels of land in west Louisville than any private owner.

He said Mirage Properties, the company that sold his house to Amherst, was synonymous with renting in west Louisville. Records show Amherst bought nearly every house it owns in the area from Mirage. Young knows family and friends who rented from Mirage and now live in Amherst properties.

“They’re all over the place over here,” he said.

West Louisville is the type of community where investor-backed equity companies, like Amherst, can do a lot of harm, said Raymond, the Georgia Tech professor. As the housing stock shrinks, so do opportunities for people to buy homes — which is widely considered an essential element of wealth building.

As the companies buy up properties and rent them out, they extract equity from neighborhoods that need it most, said Tony Curtis, the executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition.

Without action from lawmakers, the threat of displacement and inequity only grows as investor-backed companies expand, he said. 

“It’s a huge issue,” Curtis said. “They’re taking housing off the market, and the opportunities to build wealth are being snatched away.”

Amherst’s investment in west Louisville also comes as a flurry of projects and investments focused on the area are sparking concerns about gentrification and displacement, including the establishment of a controversial tax increment finance district poised to pump millions of dollars into the West End for yet-to-be-determined economic development efforts.

Wethington, the mayor’s spokesperson, said the city is trying to increase access to homeownership and help close wealth gaps with programs that help people pay for down payments or make home improvements. 

She also touted $116 million budgeted for affordable housing and noted that the city’s land development code is under review. 

Those measures are attempts at “addressing some of the impacts on the housing market and on the well-being of our residents and our neighborhoods created by these investor buyers,” she said.

Jecorey Arthur, a District 4 Democrat representing sections of west Louisville and downtown, has ideas for legislation that would support renters. Some of his ideas include banning landlords from evicting tenants for matters that aren’t clear lease violations and giving tenants the first option to purchase properties that landlords want to sell.

“When you lose local ownership, you lose local control,” said Arthur, whose district includes the western reaches of downtown into the Russell neighborhood. 

Arthur acknowledges that some of his ideas could face opposition or even legal challenges if implemented. But he said it’s time for the council to step up.

“Instead of talking about what we cannot do, let’s look at what we can do,” he said.

Looking forward

Photo: J. Tyler Franklin

Stacey Young had to move from his rental home after his new landlord dramatically increased the rent, he said.

Young has lived in west Louisville since he was a teenager and knows the area well. He is frustrated that he had to move, but he said the rent increase Amherst wanted wasn’t worth it. 

Now, he’s focused on the opportunity ahead. Maybe this will motivate him to expedite his plans to build up his credit, save up some money and try to buy a home, he said. 

Right now, Young, his wife and children are staying with family while he finds something more permanent. He’d like to move to a quieter block in a neighborhood with fewer safety issues than where he lived. 

But as Young leaves, he can’t help but worry about what will happen to neighborhoods like Shawnee as outside-investor-backed firms like Amherst buy more and more homes. 

He wonders what will happen to the people who live there and how many more will get priced out.

“It just puts some people in tough situations,” he said. “For some folks, this is all we have.”

The post A corporate landlord’s takeover spotlights racial inequities and displacement fears in west Louisville appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Letcher County jail evacuates after flood cuts off running water Friday, Jul 29 2022 

Brown flood water inundates the streets of Hindman, Ky. in Knott County. Water comes up a few feet from the ground.

Katie Myers

Downtown Whitesburg, Ky., in Letcher Co., sees devastating floods after heavy rain in late July.

The Kentucky Department of Corrections evacuated 117 people held at the Letcher County Jail after intense flooding in the area cut off the facility’s access to running water.

Letcher County jailer Bert Slone said the water crested a few hundred feet from the jail, but much of town could be without water for two weeks.

Gov. Andy Beshear has confirmed 16 flood related deaths so far, with more deaths expected in the coming days. 

The incarcerated people held at the jail didn’t have a chance to tell loved ones on the outside where they were headed, Slone said, but that they will be able to make phone calls once they’ve arrived at another Department of Corrections facility. Corrections officials have not yet responded to a request for comment or to confirm where the evacuees were headed.

“One of the hardest things to do is to put yourself in the place of a parent, an uncle an aunt a brother or sister that you could have someone in a jail and somebody would move them and not tell you anything about it,” Slone said, but added that the Department of Corrections doesn’t release transportation information ahead of time for security reasons. “We’ve talked to a lot of family members today and tried to explain why we moved them.”

Jails are required to provide hot and cold running water as well as at least one water fountain, according to Kentucky’s jail standards. Letcher County jail staff brought in bottled water, but they asked the Department of Corrections to transport the people held there because they didn’t expect the water to be restored for weeks.

The North Fork of the Kentucky River winds back and forth between Slone’s house in the Upper Bottom part of town and Letcher County’s jail and courthouse on Main Street, less than a mile away. Slone’s brother pulled in the driveway early Thursday morning to warn that a flood was coming.

Slone went inside to gather his family. He said it only felt like a couple of minutes had passed, but when he went back outside the truck was gone and the water had already surrounded the house, trapping the family inside.

Cellular service was down as well, so Slone communicated with jail staff using Facebook messenger and contacted the state to start arranging for an evacuation.

The water receded enough for Slone to get to the jail around 5 p.m. Thursday. Department of Corrections staff from all over the state started gathering to help transport the 117 people held in the jail, with the first convoy carrying incarcerated women leaving around 1 a.m. Friday morning. The last of three transportation convoys left the jail around noon, Slone said.

The whole town has been assessing the damage, including Slone’s staff. 

“I just had a guard come in the door, and his family lost their home. I hadn’t seen him for several days,” Slone said.

Flood waters have disrupted running water across the region, according to Mark Lewis, the general manager of the Letcher County Water and Sewer District, a water distributor that buys water from nearby sources, including the city-run water plant that supplies water to the jail. 

Lewis said the county’s water and sewer district services more than 3,000 customers and purchases water from Knott County Water, City of Jenkins and the City of Whitesburg. Lewis said the Letcher County district was assessing damage to their distribution systems, but they couldn’t get water flowing again until the other water sources start supplying water again.

“We are kind of at the mercy of the other entities, they have to have water to provide to us,” Lewis said.

The post Letcher County jail evacuates after flood cuts off running water appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Shawnee Park police shooting highlights arrest warrant policy gaps Wednesday, Jul 20 2022 

Shawnee Park Louisville police shooting crime scene.

Stephanie Wolf

Louisville police tape off the scene at Shawnee Park on the evening of July 10, 2022.

As the Louisville Metro Police Department continues investigating the officer-involved shooting at Shawnee Park last week, the department also faces scrutiny from community members who say officers endangered bystanders.

The Dirt Bowl basketball tournament drew hundreds of people to Shawnee Park on July 10. The games were over for the day when officers attempted to arrest 30-year-old Herbert Lee, who was wanted on multiple outstanding warrants, but some of the crowd still lingered. 

Lee allegedly ran from the police and shot at them, hitting one officer’s bulletproof vest, before they returned fire. Lee was shot in the “extremities,” according to LMPD officials, and has since been released from the hospital. He’s now being held on a $1 million cash bond and faces several charges, including attempted murder of a police officer.

“It’s gonna be in the back of my head till the day I die,” said Bruce Sweeney, who was at the scene and coaches a youth basketball team called the Breewayy Warriors, named in honor of Breonna Taylor

“There are kids out here. And they had to see this,” he said. “It sickens me.”

Police officials did not answer questions from KyCIR about their decision to engage Lee at the west Louisville park. 

But the incident highlights broader concerns about how LMPD serves warrants and what precautions officers should take to keep the public safe. KyCIR reviewed the department’s protocols for serving warrants and found no guidelines for how officers should handle arrests in a public setting.

The department’s standard operating procedures require officers to fill out a risk assessment form that is reviewed and approved by a commanding officer before executing a warrant inside a building or residence so officers can consider the safety of the building and weigh the risks of entering. However, the nearly 900-page document mentions nothing about approaching someone in a park, on the sidewalk, or in any public space where other people might be around. 

LMPD isn’t the only police department without a clear policy for handling situations like the one at Shawnee Park last week. But, according to a model arrest policy by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the location, timing and manner of an arrest should be planned carefully “to minimize the danger to officers, suspects and third parties.”

Kungu Njuguna, a policy strategist for ACLU Kentucky, said incidents like the Shawnee Park shooting only increase divides between police and the Black community, especially since this happened after the Dirt Bowl, an event with a longstanding history in the West End. 

“It adds to that generational trauma of distrust and the belief that the police aren’t here to protect us, they’re here to harm us,” he said.

Questions about accountability

LMPD officers gathered at Shawnee Park shortly before attempting to arrest Herbert Lee.

LMPD body camera footage

LMPD officers gathered at Shawnee Park shortly before attempting to arrest Herbert Lee.

The department is conducting an internal investigation of the Shawnee Park incident, despite a previous agreement that Kentucky State Police would investigate all of their officer-involved shootings. Louisville’s newly created Inspector General’s Office also announced an investigation into the shooting.

A department spokesperson said officers were patrolling the tournament when they recognized Lee, who at the time had about a dozen outstanding warrants against him, including theft of a firearm and possession of a handgun by a convicted felon. LMPD Chief Erika Shields said during a press interview shortly after the shooting that officers were “very judicial” to wait until the tournament had ended to serve the warrant. 

But Mike Lawlor, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven, said the officers’ decision to pursue Lee in the park was reckless. Unless the situation was urgent and the person presented an immediate danger to the public, he said LMPD should have waited.  

“The police knew or should have known this guy was carrying a firearm,” Lawlor said. “He had a track record of this. He had known convictions for it.”

If any bystanders had gotten hurt in the shootout, he said the city would likely have a lawsuit on its hands, “and the argument would be that you knew or should have known that it was likely innocent people would be injured here, yet your officers did it anyway.”

Lawlor said there should always be some type of accountability when it comes to serving warrants or pursuing suspects, despite the location. 

“More and more police departments are putting very severe restrictions on high-speed chases and no-knock warrants because they’re just a recipe for disaster,” he said. “Innocent people can get killed.”

Three months after Breonna Taylor was killed by police during a raid on her home in 2020, the Louisville Metro Council voted unanimously to ban no-knock warrants in the city. And this year LMPD reimplemented a policy to reduce deaths and injuries caused by vehicle police chases, after seeing a significant increase in bystander deaths and injuries.

The Shawnee Park shooting didn’t involve a no-knock warrant or a car chase and nobody died in the incident, but it still highlights concerns about when the pursuit of a suspect outweighs the risks — and how unclear protocols and risky decision-making have the potential to end in tragedy.

Community impact and distrust

On July 14, four days after the shooting, police officials released a partial and edited version of the body camera footage from the incident, saying the rest would be available “upon the completion of necessary reductions based on Kentucky open records law.” (Prior to 2020, it was LMPD policy to release body camera footage within 24 hours of a police shooting.)

That evening, activists gathered at the Carl Braden Memorial Center in the Parkland neighborhood for a press conference, where they expressed frustration about the incident – and skepticism about what police claim happened at Shawnee Park. 

“Louisville Metro Police Department, you have failed this city again,” said community activist Chris Will, commenting on the limited footage. “Why would you not show the interaction from the beginning right to the end?”

One activist at the gathering, who goes by A.B., questioned why officers chose to arrest Lee in a public place, “with women and children at a family event.”

“The police was there to protect us,” he said. “Not to add to our trauma to this community and our kids.”

Another activist, Jeff Compton, suggested that officers wouldn’t have approached the situation the same way if it happened in a white community.

“For them to chase him in the middle of the park with kids playing in a family environment … Would you guys do this if it was St. Matthews? Would you do it if it was in Georgetown?” he said. “No, you only want to do it in our communities.”

Editor’s Note: LMPD released full body camera footage of the Shawnee Park shooting on Wednesday, shortly before KyCIR published this story. 

The post Shawnee Park police shooting highlights arrest warrant policy gaps appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Here’s why most candidates running for judge in Kentucky don’t need your vote Wednesday, Jun 15 2022 

When Jefferson County residents cast their votes for Circuit Court judge this election day, they’ll choose between Julie Kaelin, a current District Court judge and former public defender, and Ebert Haegele, a prosecutor who currently leads the Narcotics Division of the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office in Louisville.

The candidates come from opposite sides of the legal system. According to Kaelin, her experience representing people accused of crimes gives her a perspective that is often lacking among judges. 

Haegele, on the other hand, said his prosecutorial background means he’s used to making tough decisions similar to the decisions judges make from the bench.

On November 8, voters will decide which perspective they want in a judge and, in doing so, impact the decisions that come out of the court for the next eight years.

Most voters in Kentucky, however, will not face a choice between two candidates like Kaelin and Haegele. Out of this year’s 289 nonpartisan judicial elections held across the state, 210 are uncontested. In other words, voters have a choice between candidates in only 27% of Kentucky judicial elections this year. 

Judicial elections are supposed to give the public a chance to choose its judges. In practice, however, the structure of these contests keep many well qualified candidates out of the race. The result is a bench with narrower legal experience and perspectives, a campaign system which is largely only accessible to the well-known and well-connected, and a right to vote that often lacks a real choice to make.

Jasmine Heiss, who directs the In Our Backyards initiative studying rural mass incarceration at the Vera Institute of Justice, said judicial elections are often overlooked compared to high-profile races for executive or legislative branch positions.

“The whims, the discretion and the orientation of an individual judicial decision maker can have an impact on the rest of a person’s case, and potentially the rest of a person’s life,” Heiss said. “Despite that power and that consequential impact, I think very few people when they go to the polls fully understand or appreciate what kinds of decisions judges are making.”

The lack of competition is especially visible in rural Kentucky. Voters won’t see a single competitive judicial race in 35 counties. Twenty of those sit east of Lexington, stretching across Appalachia from Robertson County in the north to Harlan County in the south.

This means people in those areas have little ability to hold their judges accountable for the important decisions they make.

“In small places where the intimate details of people’s lives are sometimes known to people on the bench, and where judges perhaps don’t see adequate resources outside of the justice system or the court system, they can really take on an overly large role in the public health and social space,” Heiss said.

What’s in a name?

Candidates and sitting judges give plenty of reasons why judicial ballots aren’t filled with fresh faces every election:

Only licensed attorneys can run for judge, so the pool of candidates is inherently small. Many voters don’t interact with the courts regularly, so the role judges play in government is less visible.

And there are a lot of seats to fill. Each voter will pick a candidate in anywhere from five to 43 judicial races, making it difficult to make informed decisions for every single one.

Most elections for public office run through a party system, marking each candidate a Republican, Democrat, third party or independent. Even if voters don’t recognize a name, they can make an informed choice based on the party a candidate represents on the ballot.

But Kentucky’s Code of Judicial Ethics prohibits judges and candidates from engaging in certain partisan activities. This includes identifying as a party’s candidate, acting as a party leader and campaigning on partisan endorsements. 

Kentucky Supreme Court Justice John Minton Jr. said while the code correctly restricts partisan actions to keep judges independent and impartial, it has the side effect of leaving judicial candidates with far fewer resources than candidates for partisan offices.

“If you’re a nonpartisan candidate, there’s nobody waiting to greet you there,” Minton said. “It’s an independence that makes the judicial campaigning much more difficult, and it makes the fundraising very difficult.”

All of these factors combine to make judicial elections some of the most low-information and low-engagement races on the ballot. Candidates told KyCIR they may end up working as hard to make voters aware of their race in the first place as they do convincing those voters to support them come election day.

Kim Green, a public defender who supervises the Department of Public Advocacy’s Capital Trials Branch, ran in a primary for a Circuit Judge seat against four opponents, and said this issue became apparent to her over the course of the campaign.

“A lot of what I’ve come to realize is how little is known about what a Circuit Court judge does,” Green said. “Because it’s a down ballot nonpartisan race, I think a lot of times people don’t have much information when they walk into the ballot box to make a decision. And so a huge part of the campaign for me has simply just been getting information out there.”

Kim Green, a public defender who ran for circuit court judge this year.

Kim Green, a public defender who ran for circuit court judge this year.

This makes name recognition the most critical factor in winning judicial office. Sitting incumbents consequently have an advantage from the start over any challengers, having built up familiarity with the public over their prior years in office.

Incumbent judges are running unopposed in 195 seats this year, filling about two-thirds of the state court system. Only 28 incumbents face a competitive reelection campaign.

Bob Heleringer, a former state representative and District Judge candidate from Jefferson County, said there is always interest in running for judge among attorneys, but that incumbents’ reputations dissuade would-be challengers from running against them.

“I don’t see it as any lack of interest. When there’s vacancies, there’s lots of folks that file [as a candidate],” Heleringer said. “Incumbent judges that are unopposed are that way because lawyers think, by and large, they’re doing overall a good job.”

Heleringer said that because most of the public has little knowledge about judicial candidates and judicial power in general, some candidates are able to win office easily off of “magical names” that connect them to a more prominent family member.

In May, he bought advertisement space in The Courier Journal that listed his own endorsements for the May 17 primaries, in what he said was an effort to provide voters with more information to vote off of than just name recognition.

(Read: Eighteen Jefferson County candidates for judge advance to November election)

One race in Eastern Kentucky illustrates the power of incumbency. Boyd County’s only competitive election is to succeed retiring District Judge Gerald Reams, who was first appointed to the seat in 2000 to fill a vacancy.

One of the two candidates running is Anna Ruth, a court-appointed Domestic Relations Commissioner who hears complex domestic cases and makes recommendations on them to the county’s Circuit Court. Ruth said her interest in running for the seat was stopped by Reams’ first appointment to the bench in 2000.

“At the time I congratulated him, went to his swearing in, and told him then that I would never run against him,” Ruth said. “And as Judge Reams is retiring, I had decided maybe it was time to throw my hat in the ring again for District Court.”

Ruth will be on the November ballot against Devon Reams, an assistant county attorney and daughter of the retiring Judge Reams. Reams said although her relation to the retiring incumbent may affect some voters, she is confident in campaigning on her individual reputation across the county – both in her legal work and in her social connections.

Devon Reams, a candidate for District Court judge in Boyd County.

Devon Reams, a candidate for District Court judge in Boyd County.

“[People] will vote for me because they know me personally,” Reams said in an email. “I am proud of my last name, but the relationships I have formed over the years will take me much further than my last name.”

Candidates who are less well-known have to build name recognition for themselves – which of course requires a significant amount of funding to buy yard signs, billboards, radio ads and so on. This ends up placing another filter onto would-be candidates in their personal wealth and connections.

Green, the Lexington public defender, said the combined demands of fundraising, campaigning and continuing to work for a living can make the task of overcoming the name recognition gap seem overwhelming.

“The first thing people told me when I wanted to run for judge was, ‘You’re going to have to raise X amount of money,’ and that’s a daunting prospect,” Green said. “I think a lot of people feel like it’s a bit of a monumental task to run for judge, plus also keep going with whatever your law practice happens to be.”

There are other ways to pick judges. Most states use a combination of elections or appointments to choose who sits on the bench, but Kentucky is one of only ten states that selects all judges for every term through nonpartisan elections.

Heiss, of the Vera Institute of Justice said the process, while imperfect, allows voters to hold judges directly accountable, but a more effective system would keep people engaged with the judiciary between election years.

“I do think that there’s a real opportunity to have a well-functioning [election] system, if there is attention on the kinds of decisions that judges are making,” Heiss said. “A really important policy question is, what would meaningful judicial oversight and accountability look like, such that people had a real mechanism to engage with and understand the system much more frequently than during elections? And I think that could actually be transformative.”

The post Here’s why most candidates running for judge in Kentucky don’t need your vote appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Louisville public defenders claim ‘retaliation’ against union effort Monday, May 23 2022 

The Jefferson County Public Defender’s office management has been refusing to negotiate in good faith with the newly formed union representing attorneys within the office, according to a complaint issued by the National Labor Relations Board last week.

Attorneys with the public defender’s office voted to unionize under the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers Local Union 369 in January, citing difficult working conditions such as low pay, high caseloads, and a lack of transparency regarding important office decisions.

The Louisville-Jefferson County Public Defender Corporation has an annual budget of $9.2 million, according to tax filings, and represents poor people in Jefferson County who come up against the legal system. Law360 reported in October that the starting salary for public defenders in Louisville is among the lowest in the country, at $45,000.

In a complaint filed on May 19, the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board based in Cincinnati accuses the office management, led by Chief Public Defender Leo Smith, of violating federal labor laws by “failing and refusing to bargain collectively and in good faith.”

The complaint is based on a series of charges filed by the union with the board claiming management has failed to recognize the union as the representative of its employees and refused to furnish information necessary to start the bargaining process.

“The corporation has flatly refused to negotiate or provide any requested information to its lawyers’ union,” IBEW Local Union 369 General Counsel Ben Basil said in an email.

Management has until June 2 to respond to the allegations and a hearing before an administrative law judge has been scheduled for July 20. After the hearing, the board can issue orders requiring employers to stop or to compensate employees for previous unfair labor practices. Both parties can challenge orders in the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Management has hired Smith & Smith Attorneys, a prominent labor law firm that union representatives say has a reputation for union busting tactics.

Chief Public Defender Smith has yet to respond to requests for comment for this article. He is expected to answer questions about the unionization process during a Metro Council budget hearing tonight.

W. Kevin Smith of Smith & Smith has not yet responded to an emailed request for comment.

The union believes management has retaliated against members of the bargaining unit, as well.

The union filed a charge with the federal labor relations board in late March alleging management outsourced the work previously handled by a union member to a subcontractor to retaliate against and discourage union activity.

The union member was the sole attorney working in the mental inquest warrant unit, a division of the public defender’s office representing people facing involuntary treatment for mental health issues. A mental inquest warrant allows police to take custody of an individual and involuntarily commit them to a mental institution, for example, or require them to take prescription drugs.

Management disbanded the unit in March, according to the charge filed by the union, and mental inquest warrant cases were subcontracted out to a private attorney. The union requested more information about the reasoning for the change, including the amount paid to the subcontractor, but management from the public defender’s office has not disclosed that information, according to the charge.

“Subcontracting of MIW work raises serious concerns about the corporation’s representation of vulnerable people who do not have realistic alternatives for legal representation other than the public defender corporation,” Basil of the IBEW said. It also raises concerns about the corporation’s stewardship of public money provided to it to represent MIW clients – clients the corporation now refuses to represent directly.”

The organizing process has been tense since the start. Smith sent an all-staff email during December, before staff voted to join the union, urging attorneys to vote “no” on unionization.

People organizing within the office were “creating the specter of an ‘enemy’ by and through this union organizing campaign,” Smith said in the email.

“This campaign has pulled back the curtain on the illusory enemy we are now confronting – it is the cynical and insidious creation of a few self-centered, disgruntled lawyers,” Smith wrote. Smith said the campaign was dividing the public defender’s office and undermining the important work performed by the attorneys.

The attorneys within the public defender’s union say the organizing process hasn’t changed the values and goals of the attorneys.

“They continue to fight for their clients and act in those clients’ best interest,” the union said in a press release in January.

“The decision to take this course of action reflects those values, as they firmly believe this course of action is the best way to ensure the needs of their clients — both current and prospective — will best be met.”

The post Louisville public defenders claim ‘retaliation’ against union effort appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Meet the Florida think tank pushing for welfare restrictions in Kentucky Friday, May 6 2022 

During a legislative committee meeting in March, members of the Kentucky House of Representatives gathered to debate a controversial welfare reform bill that, just a couple of weeks later, would be signed into law.

Republican Rep. David Meade of District 80 read off a number of statistics related to House Bill 7, emphasizing claims that Kentucky Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients are misusing benefits (SNAP) and that many Medicaid recipients are actually ineligible. The goal of the bill, he said, is to eliminate fraud in the welfare system, reduce dependency on public assistance and get people back to work. 

But when asked where the data he had been reciting came from, Meade said the majority of it was provided by a 2016 University of Kentucky study as well as a third party group — the Foundation for Government Accountability.

The Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) is a conservative think tank based in Naples, Florida that doesn’t disclose its donors and has a history of pushing what many experts have called “junk social science.” Its four main areas of focus are election integrity and welfare, health care and workforce reforms. 

“A national group and high-priced Kentucky lobbyists aggressively shopped a national agenda around slashing public benefits,” said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocate and a critic of House Bill 7.

Kentucky is especially fertile ground for this kind of policy, but advocates say it’s part of a national trend of states attempting to restrict safety net features using a “one size fits all” model seen in legislation developed by groups who often have no stake in the community.  

When Meade acknowledged the fingerprints of a conservative Florida-based think tank upon public policy debate in Kentucky, the moment served to underscore the success that unified conservative messaging is having in altering the delivery of social services in America, one state at a time.

 And while there were significant changes in HB7 and compromises made by the time the bill was passed in April, advocates remain concerned that groups like this will continue to push back against the systems that are meant to protect the state’s most vulnerable citizens, children and families. 

“It really seems like we’re trying to punish people for being poor,” said Democratic Rep. Mary Lou Marzian of Louisville.

Who are they?

The FGA was founded in 2011 by Tarren Bragdon, who left his seat in the state legislature in Maine to pursue policy behind the scenes. 

With the help of its lobbying arm, the Opportunity Solutions Project, the FGA is more powerful today than ever. According to its 2021 annual report, the group had a hand in influencing over 500 reforms across the country. It is currently active in 32 states and through its policy work has gotten 9.5 million people off of public assistance in the last four years.

While the FGA and Opportunity Solutions Project have been outspoken and public about their policy goals, they are less transparent when it comes to their revenue. Registered as a tax-exempt political nonprofit under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code, the organization doesn’t have to disclose donors and is considered a “dark money” group. 

While the FGA did not respond to requests for an interview, its latest report shows it brought in $12.9 million last year, a 21% increase from the year prior. 

The FGA is also associated with several other conservative organizations, including the American Legislative Exchange Council and the States Policy Network, both of which are known for promoting Republican policy goals at the state level.

The Florida nonprofit has ramped up its presence in Kentucky in recent years, working to advance bills involving restrictions to unemployment, food assistance, cash assistance and health care. 

“Some sanctimonious outside group like the FGA wants to waltz in here with millionaire salaries and tell you that somehow they’re going to do it right,” said Rev. Kent Gilbert, chair of the Kentucky Council of Churches, who spoke in opposition of HB 7 and the FGA last month. 

The Opportunity Solutions Project compensated its Kentucky lobbyists $33,000 in 2021. The largest amount went to McCarthy Strategic Solutions, a government relations firm in Frankfort led by former Kentucky GOP chairman and highest paid lobbyist in the state, John McCarthy.

The Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission currently lists 10 active lobbyists for the group, including Bryan Sunderland, who was deputy chief of staff to former Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin and is currently serving as FGA’s state government affairs director.

Flawed data

The FGA has long argued that the longer a person receives direct support from the government, the more difficult it becomes for that person to leave dependency and reenter the workforce, producing plenty of infographics, polls and studies that seemingly back that claim.

But the organization has been accused of cherry picking its data, by both Democratic and Republican economists. 

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities slammed the FGA in 2018 for a report that claimed the rollbacks of public benefits and work requirements in Kansas were helping families thrive, saying their analysis was “fundamentally flawed” and “highly exaggerated.”

And after circulating some polling numbers that suggested almost all Americans supported stricter working requirements, conservative economist Peter Germanis spoke up.

“Work requirements should be based on credible evidence and attention to policy details — the exact opposite of what FGA produces,” Germanis said in a Tweet. “Sad that so many politicians fall for their ‘junk science.’ ”

The same concerns can be applied to the data used in the Kentucky legislative debate that was influenced by the FGA. 

When concerns about the extent of the organization’s involvement in HB7 were brought to sponsor Meade, he said that FGA did provide some data but that most of it came from a study by the University of Kentucky. 

“The talking points about this national organization coming into Kentucky and writing our language is incorrect,” he said. “Most of this data comes from our own home state.”

But according to an analysis by Kentucky Youth Advocate (KYA), even that data wasn’t completely accurate. 

The UK study from 2016 estimated that 73,000 individuals were enrolled in Medicaid who were ineligible due to income. But those figures are based on the American Community Survey, which uses different factors to determine both income and household makeup than the Medicaid eligibility process. KYA’s analysis estimates that the number of ineligible people enrolled in Medicaid was actually less than 30,000.  

The Impact

While the FGA hasn’t had as much success in Kentucky as it has in some other states, it remains persistent. A version of HB7 was shut down by the legislature for three years in a row before it was passed this year, and advocates don’t anticipate the FGA will let up anytime soon.

“I don’t think they’re getting ready to tuck tail and run back to Florida,” Brooks said. “As we speak, they may be working in Frankfort right now. So I think we’ve got to buckle up and prepare.”

In the face of criticism, HB7 was scaled back significantly from its original version.  Penalties for fraud in the original version were reduced, reporting requirements were changed and a costly requirement to reroute cash-assistance programs through EBT cards was deleted.

While the FGA might have wanted more out of HB7, advocates and other legislators say the impact of the bill is still significant. 

“This bill creates barriers, and hurdles and trip wires and red tape for our neighbors who are trying to get food and medicine,” said Rep, Josie Raymond of Louisville. “It closes doors in the faces of the most vulnerable.”

Under the new law, the state will require SNAP recipients to report changes of income every quarter, rather than every six months, and will also implement work requirements for some Medicaid recipients. Both of these measures are similar to the language that is displayed on the FGA’s website. 

HB 7 also creates a three-strike ban that could ban people from accessing assistance for up to one year for making too many mistakes or selling benefits from their EBT card.

“The only way you will lose SNAP benefits is if you are breaking the law,” Meade said. “And the only way you lose Medicaid is if you are an able-bodied person at home with no dependents who is not willing to participate in the work requirements.”

But according to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, SNAP fraud is not all that common — making up less than 2% of cases. But many more people, they said, are suspected of trafficking their card based on mistakes that are easy to make while using it, such as entering the wrong pin number too many times, shopping at the same store more than once in a day or having a purchase ending in a whole-dollar amount.

The Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services also testified that the legislation would add costly layers of administrative work for a staff that is already overloaded. 

For some, the passage of HB7 and the increase in the FGA’s influence over Kentucky legislation signifies a harsh reality.

“This bill reveals a bias against the poor,” Raymond said. “By requiring more paperwork and making people jump through more hoops, we’re bringing suspicion to every interaction with the state that could empower them, rather than humiliate them.”

The post Meet the Florida think tank pushing for welfare restrictions in Kentucky appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

FEMA denials frustrate Kentucky tornado survivors Thursday, Feb 10 2022 

Jonathan Shelton

Jonathan Shelton’s home the day after December’s deadly tornadoes in Bowling Green, Ky.

Jonathan Shelton went room to room through an old elementary school-turned-donation center and stacked socks, washcloths, bedding into a shopping cart — the ordinary things he lost when a tornado swept through his neighborhood in early December.

Shelton, 29, doesn’t really like asking for help, but he needed some.

He applied for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, hoping for a check to cover a temporary place to stay, replace some lost items or repair his car. 

“Just anything helps, you know,” he said. “Especially when you lose everything.”

Shelton was surprised when the agency denied his request. He paid rent to a roommate, but his name wasn’t on the lease. To FEMA, that’s not a primary residence.

The federal agency’s mission is to aid people after disaster strikes by helping pay for temporary housing, repair damaged homes, or other critical needs like food, clothes or medicine.

Jacob Ryan

Donations are piled in a donation center at the old Cumberland Trace Elementary School in Bowling Green, Ky.

But fewer than 14% of the 11,800 Kentuckians who asked for FEMA’s help within six weeks of the storm were approved for aid, according to a KyCIR review of federal data.

More than 4,300 applicants were considered ineligible for housing assistance because they missed or couldn’t be contacted for an inspection, according to the agency’s data.

Nearly 200 were turned down because FEMA officials could not verify their identity, address or that they owned the damaged property.

FEMA denied nearly 2,000 applicants after their application was withdrawn or duplicated, the data show. They are not included in KyCIR’s analysis. 

Applicants have 60 days after a denial to appeal the decision. 

In an emailed statement, a FEMA spokesperson said the agency could not explain the assistance approval rate because every applicant has a unique case, with unique circumstances.

“Survivors have every right to appeal FEMA’s decision, in writing, if they disagree,” said Alberto A. Pillot, FEMA assistant external affairs officer.

Rejections common

The historic tornado tore 160 miles across Kentucky, killing 77 people and causing billions of dollars in damages.

Since then, FEMA has provided more than $12 million in aid through the Individuals and Households Program, which includes housing assistance and other critical needs.

But in Facebook support groups, donation centers, and firehouses in western Kentucky, the stories of FEMA are often about getting turned down.

It’s a common issue nationwide. FEMA’s assistance approval rates have dropped in recent years into the teens, down from more than 60% a decade ago, according to a report last year from The Washington Post.

A 2020 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office highlighted several challenges to seeking FEMA aid, such as requiring some people to first apply for a loan with the Small Business Administration — a requirement FEMA didn’t fully explain. 

FEMA also has struggled to manage expectations, and needs to improve how it communicates with people seeking assistance, according to the report.

FEMA strives to help after a disaster, but they’re not the cavalry, said Simone Domingue, research fellow at the University of Oklahoma’s Southern Climate Impacts Planning Program.

“The unfortunate result is there are often some pretty critical gaps,” she said.

There are many reasons a person can be denied assistance, according to FEMA. Having insurance is a leading reason; the agency won’t pay for any damage covered by insurance. 

The application process is the byproduct of a government system under pressure to respond to more and more disasters, said David McEntire, professor in the emergency services department at Utah Valley University.

“There are often people who are frustrated with FEMA and the amount they get or the time it takes to get it,” he said. “But FEMA is in a precarious position because they need to verify everything, with speed, and those things clash.”

A quick denial can be enough to make someone throw up their hands and give up.

That’s what Shelton was prepared to do after seeing FEMA denied his request for assistance.

Jacob Ryan

Mari Taschner-Whitlow and her son, Jonathan Shelton, walk through a donation center in Bowling Green, Ky.

“It was, like, they’re not going to do anything, you know?” he said.

His mother, Mari Taschner-Whitlow, however, worked for years in insurance and she’d dealt with FEMA in the past. She figured she’d meet face-to-face with a FEMA representative, explain her son’s situation and resolve the issue.

She went to the local disaster recovery center in Bowling Green — a hollowed-out Sears at the nearby shopping mall — and tried to set the record straight.

She also got her son’s roommate to submit a statement that the damaged home was Shelton’s primary residence, Whitlow said, an option no one told her son about. She’s hopeful the denial will be reversed and he’ll be eligible for some type of assistance. 

But, three weeks later, they’ve yet to hear anything.

“FEMA came in and made it sound as though we’re saved. No, no,” she said. “I think most people have come to realize we’ve got to just rely on each other.”

‘FEMA cannot make you whole’

It didn’t take long for Patti Sawyer to see that the support from her community would outweigh the federal government’s.

She was hopeful after President Joe Biden came to Kentucky to tour the wreckage beside Gov. Andy Beshear.

“I thought it would be pretty obvious that someone would walk through the neighborhood and kind of be like, ‘You poor people, let us help you,’” she said.

And that’s largely what she heard, when Biden promised from amid the rubble in hard hit Dawson Springs that the federal government would be there to help.

“We’re going to get every single thing you need,” he said on December 15.

Sawyer’s home on a dead-end street in Bowling Green’s Whispering Hills subdivision sustained more than $60,000 in damage.

Jacob Ryan

Patti Sawyer stands in her living room next to windows that were broken when a tornado tore through her Bowling Green, Ky. neighborhood.

A few days after the storm, while staying at a friend’s house, she applied for FEMA aid and was rejected because she had insurance.

FEMA denied nearly 3,000 Kentuckians’ requests for aid because they had insurance coverage, according to KyCIR’s review of the agency’s data. 

Having insurance is not a guarantee a person will be denied FEMA aid, but Pillot, the FEMA spokesperson, said it’s only intended to meet “basic needs.”

“FEMA cannot make you whole,” he said.

Sawyer’s home is still standing, and for that she considers herself lucky. After she was denied, FEMA directed her to apply for a Small Business Administration loan, but she’s not looking to take on debt.

“I’m not expecting …to come out ahead in this,” she said. “But I’d like to come out where I left off, before this disaster hit.”

Now, she’s not too hopeful that will happen, and she’s learning to accept it.

“This is Kentucky,” she said. “We’re gonna dig in and we’re gonna rebuild. We’re gonna do what we need to to clean up. We’re going to help each other.” 

Contact reporter Jacob Ryan at

The post FEMA denials frustrate Kentucky tornado survivors appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

No-bid tornado cleanup contract in Graves County sparks squabble Friday, Jan 7 2022 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded a no-bid contract last month for debris cleanup in Graves County, prompting a battle in federal court.

A pair of disaster response firms have challenged the $23.7 million contract awarded to Texas-based DRC Emergency Services, claiming the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers violated federal purchasing rules and stifled competition by failing to solicit quotes from other companies.

The storm left extensive damage throughout western Kentucky and killed 77 people. The damage was especially severe in Graves County, where 23 people died and Mayfield, the county seat, suffered major infrastructure damage from a direct hit.

The facade of a tornado-gutted building stands against a deep blue sky

Stephanie Wolf

A building in downtown Mayfield, Kentucky that was damaged by a tornado.

Graves County is the only affected county where disaster recovery is being led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; the other counties are leading their own cleanup efforts.

President Joe Biden approved a federal emergency declaration following the storm, which directs additional resources for response and can alleviate costs for state and local governments. FEMA has assigned $120 million for Graves County cleanup, where the storms left an estimated 2 million cubic yards of storm debris. 

The protests could bring the clean-up in Graves County to a temporary stop, if a federal judge grants requests for an injunction from Ceres Environmental Services and D&J Enterprises, which are protesting the award and asking that the contract be competitively bid. D&J Enterprises also asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office to recommend the corps rescind the contract and award the work to D&J — or at least review the Alabama-based company’s offer.

Both companies claim that the DRC contract followed an illegal, improper and unfair process that excluded capable contenders from the work, and ultimately will lead to higher prices, according to federal court filings.

Top executives with DRC Emergency Services and D&J Enterprises did not respond to requests for comment. Executives with Ceres Environmental Services declined to comment, citing the pending litigation before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. 

Katelyn C. Newton, public affairs chief for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Louisville District, which issued the contract, said in an email that the no-bid contract was necessary “to address the urgent and compelling needs of the Graves County citizens.”

But attorneys for the opposing companies claim the corps of engineers had ample opportunity to solicit bids for the work, which is routine in the aftermath of disaster. 

A federal judge in Washington D.C. will hear the case via video conference next week.

In the meantime, the work continues. But John Sullivan, the president of DRC Emergency Services, warned in a statement filed with the court that any order for injunction or to bid the contract would lead to lengthy delays.

Graves County Judge Executive Jesse Perry and Mayfield Mayor Kathy Stewart O’Nan didn’t respond to requests for comment.

As of January 6, the corps reported just more than 2% of the some 2 million cubic yards of debris had been cleared from Graves County.

Feds say no-bid justified

The tornado front that swept through western Kentucky on Dec. 10 stretched from one side of Graves County to another — leaving behind some of the most intense destruction in the path of the 160-mile storm.

Debris clean-up crews were on the ground fast. By December 14, a Ceres Environmental employee surveyed the damage in western Kentucky and sent estimates via email to Bo Ansley, the chief of the corps’s emergency management branch.

In court filings, attorneys for Ceres Environmental Services say this is proof that the firm was ready to lead the cleanup effort. 

But the corps never asked the company to bid before awarding the contract to DRC on Dec. 20, the attorneys allege.

Attorneys for D&J Enterprises claim in a separate protest to the U.S. Government Accountability Office that the corps failed to provide notice of the job opportunity and “handed it to DRC.” This, they claim, is a violation of federal procurement codes.

But Borislav Kushnir, a US Department of Justice attorney representing the corps, said in response that the agency violated no rules, and was well within its right to award the no-bid contract to “avoid an even larger humanitarian disaster.” 

The agency considered competitive bidding, he said in the court documents, but ultimately decided it was “unworkable,” claiming the process could take up to six months to complete.

Newton, the corps’s spokesperson, said timelines can vary from project to project, but competitively bid contracts “generally take a significant amount of time to allow for the development of the requirement and solicitation, and the submission and evaluation of proposals.”

The corps had also already vetted DRC Emergency Services, Kushnir argued. It selected the firm last year for a regional debris management contract, which would designate DRC Emergency Services as the go-to firm for cleanup after disasters in a region that includes Kentucky. 

But that contract has been on hold, due to bid protests.

“While the general need for debris removal after natural disasters may be predictable, the Government did not foresee – nor could it foresee – that a devastating tornado would hit western Kentucky … while a larger procurement for debris removal was in the midst of litigation,” Kushnir said.

And Kyle Jefcoat, an attorney for DRC Emergency Services, argues there would be little question that the firm would be “performing this exact work” under the regional contract, if not for the protests.

Other firms are handling the clean-up work in neighboring counties. 

In Marshall County, officials approved a contract with Mississippi -based Looks Great Services of MS LLC on December 17 for debris removal. 

Jason F. Darnall, the Marshall County attorney, said the contract was competitively bid, and five firms submitted a proposal for the work.

In Marshall County, a robust network of first-responders and capable volunteers helped local officials triage the immediate needs after the storm and take the time to bid the project competitively, Darnall said. 

He wouldn’t speculate why the contract in Graves County wasn’t put up for bidding, but stressed that the extent of the damage between the two counties was vastly different. Marshall County’s damage was largely residential, while Graves County suffered a direct hit to downtown Mayfield. 

“They are in a completely different situation than we are,” Darnall said.

DRC’s history of allegations

Spats between the nation’s largest disaster response firms are a common occurrence after storms strike.

The Graves County contractor, DRC Emergency Services, has faced nearly a dozen different federal lawsuits  accusing it of underpaying workers or not paying subcontractors. 

The company was briefly suspended in 2014 from bidding on federal contracts after allegedly failing to ensure local subcontractors got their share of the clean-up work after the 2011 tornado disaster in Joplin, Missouri. They were reinstated after adopting additional oversight and transparency measures.

After hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, a subcontractor accused both DRC Emergency Services and Ceres Environmental Services of directing subcontractors to cut down healthy trees to boost payloads.

That suit was dismissed in April 2021.

Newton, the spokesperson for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, declined an interview for this story, citing the pending litigation. But she said DRC Emergency Services is not actively suspended or debarred, and the company is qualified for the contract work in western Kentucky.

Contact Jacob Ryan at

The post No-bid tornado cleanup contract in Graves County sparks squabble appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

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