No Man’s Land: The neighborhood Louisville forgets 364 days a year

The neighborhoods surrounding Churchill Downs are filled with vacant properties and absentee landlords. Some aren’t even named on city maps and have no Metro Council representation. Rooming houses proliferate in these neighborhoods, and while rooms rented by the hour, day or week can provide much needed shelter for renters facing adversity, they are often sites of illegal activity, breeding crime waves. LEO looked into the matter and found that the city is at loss as to how to address the problems in this “no man’s land.”

Heywood House is a men’s only rooming house located at 427 Heywood Ave., just off Fourth Street between Winkler and Central Avenues. Its 13 residents pay $70 a week for a room, utilities and the use of two communal kitchens. The property has been accepting boarders since at least 1907 when it provided rooms and meals for men who worked at nearby Churchill Downs. In the 1950s, Heywood House began accepting female tenants too, but that ended 20 years ago when Don Seibert bought the property and returned it to a men’s only establishment.

“As a former substance abuse counselor, I knew something like this was needed,” Seibert explained. “There is no drinking and no drugs in the house. No women are allowed on the property except nurses, sisters and mothers. Otherwise, it leads to trouble.”

Heywood House residents with past substance abuse issues are required to attend Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Seibert tries to visit the house regularly to make sure residents follow the rules, but he also employees an onsite manager. However, not all boarding house owners are as particular about who they rent to as Seibert. Law enforcement officials claim many of the boarding houses which proliferate in the poorer neighborhoods of Louisville are hotbeds for prostitution and drug abuse.

Anyone driving along the streets near Churchill Downs has seen the signs advertising “sleeping rooms.” These establishments rent space by the month, week, day or even the hour. These living arrangements appeal to people in some form of transition because of divorce, drug addiction, financial setbacks, unemployment, a prison record, or some combination thereof.

Until recently, Metro government had no way of knowing just how many boarding houses there are in Louisville. But in April, the Metro Council unanimously passed a revision to Chapter 115 of the Metro Code of Ordinances that requires boarding and lodging houses with a maximum of eight boarders to be licensed annually. The new law expands the definition of shelter to include boarding and lodging houses in addition to homeless shelters and transitional housing, but excludes short-term rental facilities, such as motels, hotels and extended stay lodging facilities along with nursing homes and assisted living facilities. It also requires operators to provide more information on residents/renters and what, if any, services are provided.

“These changes deal with a problem we have faced in knowing who is running these places and who they are renting to,” Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton (D-5), the ordinance’s primary sponsor, said after it was passed. “Like any business they need to be properly licensed and follow the law. We can make sure these operations are run properly and are not a nuisance in our neighborhoods.”

Code enforcement officers now have the authority to enter these facilities to determine if property maintenance and code regulations are being followed. Violators will face fines for each day the facility is out of compliance. Unfortunately, the oversight is taking a while to get started. There is a Shelter/Boarder House application on the Louisville Forward website for potential boarding house operators. But when LEO called Codes and Regulation to talk to someone who was inspecting the properties, department spokesman Harold Adams told us it was being handled by Louisville Forward. But the receptionist at Louisville Forward told us to call Codes and Regulations because someone there would be in charge of the inspections.

Councilwoman Marianne Butler (D-15), who represents the area near Churchill Downs, says another difficulty to oversight of the boarding houses is that the city might not know if a property is being used for that purpose until someone reports it. “We depend on neighbors to let us know that someone is renting out rooms, floor space, or even closets,” Butler says. “We also have a lot of vacant properties that someone might be staying in without the owner’s knowledge. A lot of out-of-town real estate prospectors bought property in South Louisville when they thought Churchill Downs was going to get a casino. Many of them are just letting these properties sit empty, hoping that the University of Louisville is going to eventually want them. The whole community has to come together to get this situation under control.”

No clear solution

David Shain moved into Heywood House in June after serving 10 years in prison for meth production. Shain says this living situation is temporary because he plans to move back to Jeffersontown, where he lived before getting into trouble. He receives monthly disability payments; years of drug use have left him with severe vascular problems and he has an internal defibrillator. Most of his days are spent sitting on the porch at the Heywood House watching the neighborhood activities.

“It’s hectic around here,” Shain says. “People are coming and going, kids playing and cars running stop signs. There are also a lot of drugs and prostitutes floating around.”

When LEO visited Heywood House in early October, Shain and several other residents were sitting on the porch talking to Fourth Division Resource Officer Lamont Washington. The Fourth Division is one of the largest and busiest in the Louisville Metro Police Department (LMPD). It covers Smoketown, Churchill Downs, the Fairgrounds, Old Louisville and South Louisville, where Heywood House is located.

Officer Washington was in the news in 2012 after he was shot while responding to a home invasion near the intersection of Taylor Boulevard and Central Avenue. His life was saved thanks to a protective vest and his badge, which actually deflected one of the bullets. As a resource officer, Washington serves in a community relations role for the department. He attends neighborhood meetings, follows up on resident complaints, and sometimes he spends time just shooting the breeze with people like the residents at Heywood House.

On the day LEO rode around with him, Washington was helping one of the Heywood House residents set up a new phone while they told him about the house next door. It had been vacant for four months and a few weeks before someone kicked in one of the doors. Since then there had been heavy traffic from prostitutes and drug users going in and out of the house.

“These women will pick up a john on Fourth and Winkler and then take him back to a house like this,” Washington says. “I’ll call Codes and Regulation and they’ll get someone out here to board it up. They say it takes 24 hours, but I have a good relationship with them. It usually only takes them a few hours.”

True to his word, an hour later someone from the city has come to board up the home. Washington says he will contact the property owner to see if he’s aware of what is going on. The officer refers to the area around Churchill Downs as a “no man’s land” because it is not technically part of any neighborhood. Old Louisville ends at the University of Louisville campus. Wyandotte, which most people still refer to as Oakdale, begins at Longfield Avenue on the south side of the racetrack. The area between these neighborhoods is simply labeled South Louisville on most maps. And to make matters even more complex, the area is also split between two council districts, 6 and 15. Because the people who live in South Louisville tend to be poor and transient, it’s hard to mount local efforts to improve the community.

“There have been drugs and prostitution here since I’ve moved here 20 years ago,” Seibert claims. “The thing is that we’re the most famous neighborhood in the world for one day of the year (during the Kentucky Derby), but we’re kind of forgotten about the rest of the time.

“The police have actually done a good job because it’s not as bad as it used to be. I’ve had women come on the porch and flash the guys, trying to drum up business. About 16 or 18 years ago, the police set up on every corner and got identification from everyone that was coming or going in the area. For that month, we didn’t have any problems. But they had to stop because someone said it was unconstitutional.”

Using the website available on the LMPD website, LEO found more than 800 crimes reported in the one-mile radius around Churchill Downs between June 1 and Nov. 24 of this year. They range in severity from emergency protection order violations to drug possession and from prostitution to murder. In October, the city was transfixed as two men were found dead on Evelyn Avenue in the Oakdale neighborhood, which is on the south side of Churchill Downs. In October, Oakdale residents complained about drive-by shootings, assaults by unattended minors and drug dealing in public view at a capacity-filled meeting with police and community leaders. Major Ryan Bates, head of the Fourth Division, told the residents that the department was responding to the situation by instituting walking patrols to curb juvenile loitering, identifying vacant homes so they could be boarded up, and giving nuisance citations to irresponsible property owners.

All of the citizens, officers and politicians interviewed for this article pointed to drugs as the main reason for the crime in South Louisville and the surrounding neighborhoods. Washington pointed out a boarding house on Fifth Street that has had more than 20 heroin overdose calls in a one year period. “The frustrating thing about overdoses is that they are considered a medical call,” he says. “The police are there to assist EMS. Basically, it’s illegal to possess drugs but it’s not illegal to use them. If we don’t see drugs, we can’t arrest you for what is in their system. If it was any other kind of call, we could give the owner a nuisance citation. If they got three or more in a 12 month period then the city can take action against them, even close the property. But because overdoses are a medical call we can’t issue a citation.”

Of course, the main argument against allowing law enforcement to make arrests at the scene of an overdose is that no one would ever report an overdose if they thought they’d go to jail. But the powers that be are taking steps to stop the escalating crime in South Louisville and nearby Oakdale. During the summer, Butler used money from her discretionary fund to pay for overtime for officers in the Fourth Division. And in early November, the Metro Council approved an additional $10,000 to cover overtime for officers patrolling Oakdale. According to a WLKY report, in the three weeks after the funding, “75 arrests were made, 16 warrants were served, and 43 misdemeanor citations were written in the area.”

Another weapon that the police are using specifically with boarding houses is the Trespassing Waiver. Property owners sign the wavier stating that anyone on the premises not accompanied by a resident can be arrested for trespassing. The forms are usually posted next to the entrance of the boarding house. Washington says the Trespassing Waivers are a useful tool for law enforcement.

“Sometimes a prostitute might pay someone to use their room if they can’t work out of the place where they are living,” he says. “If we have a Trespassing Waiver we can get the ID of anyone present on the premises. If the address on their ID is not the same as where they are, we can arrest them for trespassing unless they are accompanied by a resident.”

Butler and fellow council member David James (D-6) have also spearheaded several efforts to improve economic development throughout South Louisville. Butler in particular is lobbying hard for the state to invest $13 million in a University Corridor Plan that would pay for roadway and landscaping improvements between Third and Fourth Streets, from the railroad overpasses near the University of Louisville campus south to Central Avenue. The plan is to spur more private investment to complement the Central Station retail development at Third and Central and UofL’s Jim Patterson Stadium and Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, which have already led to improvements in the area. She says one developer renovated a whole block of M Street and rented out the homes to UofL students. Butler would like to see more of this happening.

“For some reason, it’s hard to get developers to come west of 65,” she says. “UofL has done a lot to change that. The University Corridor Plan would build on the economic development that is already happening in the area. But we need help from the state. The proposal has been turned down once, but we are hoping the funding will be approved soon.”

Many property owners in South Louisville are hoping that UofL will eventually want to connect its athletic facilities on Central Avenue to the main campus by expanding southward. Because of many closed offices over the Thanksgiving holiday, LEO could not get anyone at UofL to discuss whether that is actually part of their expansion plans, and Churchill Downs, another potential savior, did not return calls for comment on this article. But Heywood House owner Seibert says he has heard the same rumors for two decades and nothing has changed so far.

“I think everyone wants to see the neighborhood improve,” he says. “But I’ve been here 20 years and it ain’t happened yet.”