The Journal Gazette
 
 
Friday, August 21, 2020 1:00 am

Fears rise as renters looking at evictions

Groups work to offer help

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

Hundreds of Allen County renters are facing losing their homes after a state moratorium on evictions was lifted. 

The suspension on removing tenants was part of an executive order from Gov. Eric Holcomb in May, near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. It expired at midnight Aug. 14, leaving thousands of tenants across the state in limbo. 

It's difficult to determine exactly how many evictions are moving through local courts because filings are included among thousands of other small-claims cases. It's clear the number is swelling, though, and Allen Superior Court officials estimate 600 eviction cases are pending. 

Court Clerk Chris Nancarrow said Thursday 234 new cases had been filed – the first, at 12:04 a.m. Saturday – since the order was lifted. The court saw about 80 eviction filings per week before the coronavirus pandemic, he said. 

Government agencies and groups including legal and charitable organizations are now working to help as the number of renters facing eviction continues to rise. 

“The last couple weeks, we've been going left and right,” said Austin Knox, Wayne Township trustee. “Our phones are ringing off the hook.”

A rental assistance program is available through his office, but applicants must meet eligibility requirements such as income and assets. There also are limits on how much applicants can receive. 

A one-bedroom apartment is eligible for a one-time $400 payment, for example, and residents must reapply if more help is needed. 

State and city leaders have been planning for months for an increase in evictions because of the coronavirus. Many people lost jobs or took pay cuts as the economy shut down, and their ability to pay for housing was affected. 

The Hoosier Housing Needs Coalition, an advocacy group that has pushed Holcomb to track eviction data as part of the state's effort to combat the disease, estimates up to 720,000 renters in Indiana are in danger of being evicted. The figure is based on a study published this month by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which warns that 30 million to 40 million tenants around the country are at risk. 

“While methodologies differ, these analyses converge on a dire conviction: If conditions do not change, 29-43% of renter households could be at risk of eviction by the end of the year,” according to the authors of the coalition report, which included professors from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and The Eviction Lab at Princeton University. 

Predicting the eviction fallout in Allen County is nearly impossible, but Fort Wayne city leaders and others held meetings starting in May to try to plan for ways to ensure those who need help get it. 

The city's Office of Housing and Neighborhood Services used $150,000 to help create a Tenant Assistance Legal Clinic run by Indiana Legal Services, according to a news release. It also put $200,000 toward a program to help low-income residents with rent, mortgage and utility payments. 

“If they're behind on their rent – if they're facing eviction, they should call right away,” said Kelly Lundberg, director of the Office of Housing and Neighborhood Services. 

Andrew Thomas, an Indiana Legal Services lawyer who works with the legal clinic, said he agrees. Tenants shouldn't wait until an eviction notice is posted on their front door to seek help, he said.  

The clinic offers free legal advice to renters and, if necessary, representation in court. 

“We definitely see an increase in calls,” Thomas said, referring to client inquiries this week. “Most people are starting to call in now, because they're actually receiving eviction notices.” 

The governor's order paused evictions, but landlords still could initiate eviction cases while the moratorium was in effect. 

Thomas, a member of a city task force on evictions, and Lundberg each said the recent spate of cases highlights a problem Fort Wayne has faced for years. The city's eviction rate is often high, and a goal of the task force is to find out why. 

Princeton's Eviction Lab ranked 100 U.S. cities in 2016 and found that Fort Wayne was 13th among municipalities in the number of renters put out.

There were 3,049 evictions in 2016 – more than eight per day, according to researchers.

In Allen County, Brightpoint has a financial assistance program that offers help with rent, mortgage and utility payments. Some church groups also have assistance programs in place. 

A state rental assistance program that issues payments directly to landlords for eligible tenants has been particularly busy since it began accepting applications July 13. Landlords must agree to participate in the program. 

Jacob Sipe, executive director of the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority, said Wednesday the program has received more than 30,500 applications, and $7 million has been paid out. 

An online portal through which applications are accepted will close Wednesday, however. 

mleblanc@jg.net

At a glance

Resources for renters facing eviction

• Brightpoint – 260-423-3546, ext. 567

• Tenant Assistance Legal Clinic – 260-424-9155

• United Way of Allen County – 211

• indianahousingnow.org

• Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic – nclegalclinic.org


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