After paying $1,800 to move into the My Love Apartments and then buying his own stove, Kris Davis didn’t have $100 to spare.
But his landlord insisted he owed it after she found dog poop on the property and blamed his collie mix, Daisy. He was sure he’d picked up after her and that a stray dog was the real culprit, but he also knew he couldn’t afford a lawyer, and his landlord could be harsh.
So, he cut back on groceries that month and forked over the $100.
And to avoid future trouble, he sent Daisy to live with his mom.
His landlord, Rayna Mike, refused to remove the $35 pet fee from his $756 monthly rent, but Davis could live with that. It was better than an eviction.
“You can’t argue with this lady,” he said. “There’s no compromise with her.”
Davis and seven other current and former tenants shared dozens of heartbreaking stories about living at the North Memphis apartment complex — including winters huddled next to a space heater; summers without air conditioning; and infestations of mold, mice and snakes. When reached for comment, Mike declined to discuss the conditions at My Love at length but said the property has “no mold,” “regular maintenance,” and that Davis was “nothing but a troublemaker.”
A longtime code enforcement supervisor and a local home safety expert said they know the poor state of Mike’s apartments well. Unfortunately, they said, landlords like her usually get away with failing to maintain their properties and treating low-income tenants poorly for years. Landlord-friendly state law makes it extremely difficult for tenants to take legal action against property owners, and the code enforcement process can be slow to penalize them harshly.
“When the landlords won’t fix or do anything, they pretty much get away with a lot of stuff,” said Eddie Jones, the county’s new probate court clerk, who was a City of Memphis code enforcement officer for 15 years. “There needs to be civil justice reform because people are being mistreated by landlords and they’ve done everything right.”
‘Most definitely hell’
When Davis told another story, he had to laugh at the absurdity.
One day, he locked himself out of his elephant-themed apartment and needed a property manager’s help to get back in. Days after making his next rental payment, he was surprised to learn he still owed the complex money. Looking at his ledger, Mike had charged him $25 for locking himself out and then a $75 late fee for not paying the $25 on time.
When Davis complained, he said Mike — who lives at My Love — threatened to evict him.
Mike showed no sympathy and certainly no “love,” Davis said, whether he was facing a mice infestation, enduring half of a summer without air conditioning or watching water leak into his bathroom from above — which, as he showed MLK50, left his ceiling bowing, seemingly ready to collapse.
If your landlord isn’t repairing your heat or not fixing other unsafe conditions, you can submit a code complaint by calling 311. Alternatively, you can seek legal help by calling Memphis Area Legal Services at (901) 523-8822 or the Memphis Public Interest Law Center at (833) 773-6837.
Each time MLK50 spoke with Davis — who now lives in Frayser — he began with a calm demeanor. But when relaying these events, he would eventually raise his voice and plead to be believed.
“Being over there in that apartment was most definitely hell,” he said. “I can’t shake it. … It traumatized me.”
His former neighbors told parallel stories about My Love, where rent ranges from $550 per month to the mid- $700s.
Joy King, a 43-year-old bartender with three cats and a dog, said her air conditioning was broken from June through August 2021. She spent as much of the summer as possible at friends’ houses, but that’s tough with so many pets. She vividly remembers sweating through the “deplorable, oppressive” heat.
When she moved out, she said Mike “blew up her phone” and emailed her notices of late rent, even though her lease had ended.
One current resident — who was granted anonymity because he feared retaliation from Mike — said that for the last four winters, his heat stops working when the temperature drops into the 20s. He spends hours with his face and hands close to the space heater he purchased.
He tells Mike when things in his apartment break but is forced to accept her excuse of not having the money to fix them. If she were to evict him or even raise his rent another $100, he worries he’ll end up homeless.
Since starting her firm in 2015, Mike has operated apartment complexes across Memphis, including Graceland Manor in Whitehaven and Willow Oaks in South Memphis. Currently, though, My Love appears to be the only one she’s managing. According to her LinkedIn, her company is a “syndicator of high yielding apartment opportunities.” On that site, she lists civil rights, economic empowerment and poverty alleviation as some of the charitable causes she supports.
Prior to starting the firm, Mike appears to have been frequently short on cash. From 2008-2011, she attempted to receive bankruptcy protection four times but each one was dismissed — usually because she failed to file the necessary documents. In an August 2010 bankruptcy filing, Mike reported $70,000 in assets and almost $1.5 million in liabilities.
Breaking the code
Many of the issues Mike’s tenants raised violate the City of Memphis’ Code of Ordinances — which covers problems such as mold, broken air conditioning and other issues of safety and sanitation.
However, experts told MLK50 there are many reasons why landlords such as Mike are able to leave their properties in unlivable conditions for months or even years.
Sharon Hyde, manager of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative’s efforts in Shelby County, said fears of eviction lead many tenants not to complain to code enforcement.
“They’re willing to live in these horrible conditions because there’s no other place to go,” she said.
Despite these fears, people have filed 38 code complaints against the My Love Apartments — formerly known as the Love Tunica Apartments — in the last three years, even though it only has about 50 units. That’s about three times as many per unit as the nearby University Gardens complex, with nearly 500 units, and about double the nearby Orange Blossom Apartments, with 46 units.
Some complaints about My Love have triggered cases in Shelby County Environmental Court, which has jurisdiction over code violations. However, the harshest punishment from any of these cases was a $350 fine, according to city records.
Jones, the longtime code enforcement officer, said he thinks Environmental Court Judge Patrick Dandridge needs to punish landlords more harshly when they break the code. State law allows the court to charge landlords up to $50 per violation, per day the violation isn’t fixed, but Dandridge doesn’t always pursue the maximum fine.
Dandridge said Jones and other code enforcement officers have a misconception about his role. While he said he’s no friend to negligent landlords and not hesitant to issue fines, he has to judge cases fairly.
He said the purpose of fines is to prod landlords to make repairs quickly. Because of this, he will only impose them if landlords can’t prove progress on repairs. If he’s too quick to issue large fines and a landlord is already short on cash to fix the problems, he said the fines can be counterproductive.
Dandridge said it’s code enforcement officers who should be tougher on landlords by proactively looking for cases instead of being “solely responsive” to complaints by tenants. For instance, when two tenants at an apartment complex complain about mold and a broken heating system, code officers should go ahead and inspect the entire complex for additional violations. In lieu of that, Dandridge said tenants should report every code violation at their complex to give him a chance to address them all.
To Dandridge, though, the primary problem lies not with code enforcement but with Memphis’ lack of a rental registry. These registries elsewhere in the country — including Horn Lake — require landlords to name a local contact person, provide their contact information and pay fees to cover the costs of inspections. Sometimes, these registries are also paired with a licensing component, which means landlords must prove their rentals are habitable before they’re allowed to lease them.
Without contact information, code enforcement often struggles to reach landlords and provide them with legal notice of cases in Environmental Court. Once a landlord shows up in Dandridge’s courtroom, he has a 95% success rate getting them to comply, Dandridge told a Memphis City Council committee last summer.
“You will constantly see these cases on the news in my courtroom until Memphis finally says, ‘Enough is enough. We need a rental registration,’” Dandridge said.
Hyde also strongly advocated for a rental registry, saying it would help with local landlords such as Mike and be even more beneficial when dealing with out-of-state investors, who she said are the majority of the city’s worst landlords.
City of Memphis leaders — including public works director Robert Knecht, council member Chase Carlisle and other council members — have pushed for such a system for years. But in April 2021, the Tennessee General Assembly thwarted them by passing legislation that prohibits local governments from regulating rental property beyond state statute.
To circumvent this law, State Rep. Dwayne Thompson, D-Cordova, filed a bill Jan. 6 that would allow Memphis to create a registry, which the Shelby County Board of Commissioners voiced its support for Jan. 9.
For the last year and a half, Carlisle — an investor in commercial real estate including apartments — has been trying to convince other prominent local landlords to back a bill such as Thompson’s. He told MLK50 he’s been impressed by some landlords’ desires to help but worries holdouts could convince the powerful Tennessee Association of Realtors to oppose Thompson’s bill.
Since he hasn’t been able to ensure TAR’s support — or at least neutrality — and the bill doesn’t yet have a Republican co-sponsor in a legislature with a Republican supermajority, Carlisle said he’s skeptical it will pass soon. But since bad landlords plague urban, suburban and rural communities, he’s hopeful Memphis could eventually find unlikely allies across the state.
After receiving positive feedback from local Republicans, Thompson told MLK50 he’s “cautiously optimistic” he’ll be able to pass the bill in either 2023 or 2024. He said he plans to speak with TAR representatives soon and is working on finding Republican co-sponsors.
“It shouldn’t be a progressive or conservative bill. I try to view it more as a consumer protection bill,” Thompson said. “If we can get it done this session, that would be great.”
Little legal recourse
Along with city code enforcement, state law requires landlords in the state’s largest counties to provide gas, heat, electricity and any other “essential service” that “materially (affects) the health and safety of the tenant.”
When landlords don’t, tenants can theoretically either sue their landlord or withhold rent.
Practically, though, both of these options are minefields that almost always require a lawyer’s help to navigate successfully — help that can feel unattainable to low-income tenants.
“The law is really hard to follow (without a lawyer’s help),” West Tennessee Legal Services managing attorney Vanessa Bullock said. “Our laws are not set up for people to be able to handle these things on their own.”
To either sue or withhold rent, tenants must provide the property owner with a 14-day written notice — via a letter, preferably by certified mail — and keep a copy for themselves.
Then, if the landlord doesn’t make the repairs, tenants can either move forward with their suit or fix the problem themselves and withhold the amount of rent necessary to do so if they keep their receipts.
Without an attorney, Bullock said tenants rarely follow this process correctly. Usually, when they attempt to withhold rent, she said landlords will legally evict them.
“Don’t try to do this yourself,” she warned.
West Tennessee Legal Services, Memphis Area Legal Services and other local organizations can sometimes help tenants in these situations. But, Bullock said, her team won’t touch a case where tenants have already withheld rent on their own. And because Tennessee law is so “landlord friendly,” her advice to tenants is often to just search for new housing.
Bullock also pointed out that most Tennessee judges don’t consider air conditioning an “essential service” landlords are required to provide, no matter how “deplorable” a Memphis summer without it feels. To her, this defies common sense, but she knows it’s tough to achieve changes to state law that can be viewed as infringing the personal property rights of landlords.
At the heart of the existing state law is a principle that simply needs to be expanded, according to Jones. If landlords aren’t fixing something they’re supposed to fix, he said, tenants should be allowed to divert rental payments to make the repair — whether or not they compile paperwork or hire a lawyer.
Beyond this, Jones said he doesn’t understand why landlords can evict tenants while they have ongoing issues with code enforcement. He said it would be easy for code enforcement officers to send information to the General Sessions Civil Court judges who handle evictions if those judges could count it as evidence against eviction. He finds it ridiculous that regular code offenders can still evict tenants over a single month of missed rent.
“They’re evicting people, messing their credit up when they got them living in slums,” Jones said. “People are being mistreated by landlords and they’ve done everything right.”
Webb Brewer, a longtime local housing lawyer, agrees. He said Shelby County needs to work with the state to create a housing court that handles both violations by landlords and nonpayment of rent by tenants.
Right now, if a landlord files for eviction against a renter, the tenant can’t file a counterclaim to save their home, no matter how unlivable it is.
In 2022, judges granted Mike seven evictions against My Love tenants, despite the conditions there.
“A lot of times what happens is people … quit paying rent because they get fed up with having no heat and don’t know what else to do,” Brewer said. “I think some serious thought should be given to a court with broader powers.”
With the system currently in place, the experts all encouraged tenants to continue paying rent until they get legal help or find another place to stay.
Of course, finding open apartments is no easy task these days. Since 2019, the region’s proportion of vacant rentals has plummeted from above 10% to about 6%.
While Mike’s tenants denounced her treatment of them, many have nowhere else to go.
Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.