by Daniel Lowry
Shayla Johnson listened to the young lady’s story. The woman and her husband had just been evicted from their apartment because she was pregnant. The property manager had noticed that the young woman was showing, and the eviction noticed followed shortly thereafter.
“Your family is getting too big for your apartment, so you’ll have to get out,” was the word from the property manager.
The young couple didn’t want an eviction on their renting record, so they searched for another apartment. The only places they could find that seemed safe were more expensive and farther from their workplaces and farther from her doctor. The woman’s pregnancy was considered “high risk” and her doctor had told her to avoid much stress. They liked their apartment, they always paid their rent, and they didn’t want to have to move — especially now.
The Ugly Things
Shayla was ready to help the lady because it’s her job. She’s the assistant director of the Lexington Fair Housing Council, which is a nonprofit agency that investigates housing discrimination in Kentucky. With a staff of just four people and one intern, the agency covers the entire commonwealth. Shayla has 40 active cases right now. Her office gets about four new cases each day.
“It’s pretty bad,” says Shayla. “Housing discrimination touches every county in Kentucky.” The problem is on the rise, too. The agency has seen an increase in cases for four years in a row. The number one area for discrimination involves people with disabilities. National origin, gender, race and familial status round out the top five.
“Most of the cases involve people who are denied the opportunity to rent,” she says. Other cases involve people who are kicked out based on some form of discrimination, not their ability to pay. Her agency will send out “mystery shoppers” who pose as potential renters. The prices and availability of apartments will vary based on the applicants themselves, not their incomes.
“You experience a lot of frustration. You’ll have a strong case, with evidence to go along with it, then a roadblock happens, or the landlord’s attorney throws a curveball. You want to beat your head into a wall.” Shayla has been threatened, screamed at, cussed out, and thrown off properties where landlords are under investigation. Shayla says in her line of work, it’s normal to see the ugly things people do to others.
Against the Odds
“You have a person here who is vulnerable. The majority of people we represent are low income, and so they’re already vulnerable. They’re older, or they have a disability. They already have the deck stacked against them, and for them to lose their housing, too, is so tough.”
Shayla says housing is a stabilizing force in someone’s life, and when they lose that for something that is no fault of their own, that’s especially difficult to overcome.
“Sometimes older people will be evicted because the property manager doesn’t think they should be living there alone, so they evict them. They think the person may be a liability.”
Shayla’s mom and dad taught her to be involved in helping others. “My parents are my heroes,” she says. “They have always done what was right, even if it was against the odds.” Her mom served on the local school board and her dad was on the city council in their hometown of Hopkinsville. They taught her always to be prepared and put her best foot forward, no matter what.
She credits her education at Centre College with helping continue that preparation for life. “You have to love what you do,” she says. She earned degrees in English and government, and then went on to the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law with the University of Louisville to get her law degree.
Answering a Call
After Donald Trump won the presidency in November 2016, Shayla felt a calling. She considered Trump to be someone who didn’t care about helping those who are less fortunate. “I felt like God was telling me it was time. The timing was right.” She’s a Democrat, and some of her friends told her about Emerge Kentucky, which trains women to run for office.
“It’s been almost mind-blowing about what I didn’t know,” she says about Emerge. “It’s been an awesome educational tool for me. The program is so well-structured, and the curriculum is so well laid out. We are learning the real nuts and bolts about how to run for public office successfully. The network of the Democratic Party is at our feet, which is so helpful.”
Through Emerge, Shayla has been able to meet people like Emerge alumna Rep. Attica Scott, even having the chance to shadow her in Frankfort. “She is a phenomenal woman, point blank. She’s trailblazing. It’s got to be lonely being the only black female (in the legislature), but she’s gets me excited for what I feel I should do.”
Shayla hopes she can serve on the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council. The seat in her district just opened up with the resignation of a Republican member who has been indicted on multiple felonies. Shayla says leaders should focus on making their communities better, which is exactly what she wants to do.
“Just by the nature of my work, housing is probably one of the number one things I’d like to help change. We have a lack of affordable housing here in Kentucky, and because I work with the low income population every day, I see their struggle and I see when they have stable housing how their lives can turn around. It’s a domino effect. It’s easier to find a job when you have an address.”
Shayla points out that people don’t choose to be poor. She wants to help low income families. “It’s a passion for me,” she says.
Making a Difference
Like she does for all the people she represents, Shayla fought hard for the pregnant woman and her husband. The couple had gathered up all their belongings and moved to another apartment, farther from work and more expensive, but one where the property manager didn’t discriminate against a new family having a baby.
Shayla was able to secure a financial compensation for the family. They were paid the difference in rent for the new apartment for a six month period, as well as their moving expenses.
“She called and thanked me. It was a difficult time for them.” The woman had the baby, a little girl, and everything worked out fine.
Shayla smiles when she talks about it, and it’s a wide grid that makes you feel like here is someone who genuinely cares. She really cares about helping people.
“Maybe it’s somebody who just lost their job. There are tons of families that are just one paycheck away. You just never know about someone’s struggle. They’re trying to do their best to survive and make a home for their family.”
Shayla knows about the struggles. She has seen them firsthand, and she has lived through the nightmares with families who face hardships like losing their home — not because of anything they did, but because of the ugly side of human nature. Shayla wants to make a difference in people’s lives. For many people, she already has.