The roots of economic despair come from many places, but one source comes from not having somewhere to call home. Out of work or facing reduced income because of COVID-19, many residents face the threat of eviction when a state-imposed moratorium expires on June 30.
Initiatives announced this week by the city, Brightpoint and other groups should help local residents facing eviction, but financial help from the state of Indiana is sorely needed.
According to Prosperity Indiana, more than 22,354 Hoosiers have called 211 lines across the state in need of housing services. Housing requests are up 22% since the public health emergency was declared. Calls for help with rent payments alone total 11,253, more than three times the number of calls for other housing assistance, including homeless shelters or mortgage assistance.
Housing is callers' top need, according to Indiana 211 Partnership data, ahead of utility assistance, food and health care. The calls come from urban, rural and suburban counties. And more troubling are the calls that aren't coming. The clock is ticking on two deadlines – the June 30 state moratorium on evictions and a federal moratorium protecting renters in units financed with federally backed funds. The latter covers one in four rental units in the U.S.
“Some of the initial feedback I've gotten is that Brightpoint and some of the agencies were concerned because they weren't getting more requests for assistance,” said Kelly Lundberg, deputy director for the city's Housing and Neighborhood Services. “There is some concern that everyone is going to wait until the last moment.”
Instead, renters are encouraged to tap one of two new programs before they receive an eviction notice:
• The Tenant Assistance Legal Clinic, operated by the Indiana Legal Services Fort Wayne office, will work with low-income residents, referring them to either a volunteer attorney with the Volunteer Lawyer Program or one of Indiana Legal Services' attorneys. The city is investing $150,000 of its $1.7 million one-time allocation from the CARES Act for the clinic. The goal is to coordinate available resources to keep tenants out of eviction proceedings.
“It makes everything more difficult,” said Andrew Thomas, a staff attorney at Indiana Legal Services. “Often with renters, just the filing of an eviction can have an effect on their ability to find other housing.”
• A financial assistance fund, supported by a $200,000 allocation from the city, will be available through Brightpoint and the township trustee offices to help low-income residents with rent, mortgage and utility payments.
“Our priority is to prevent as many evictions and foreclosures as possible so residents have time to get back on their feet financially,” said Mayor Tom Henry in a statement.
The city's financial commitment is commendable, but its financial assistance is limited to Fort Wayne residents. The crisis is statewide. Indiana has about $2.4 billion available from its allocation of the Coronavirus Relief Fund to spend between March and December, The Journal Gazette's Niki Kelly reported last week. A small business loan program was recently announced, but assistance is sorely needed by Hoosiers who lost work and will never have the chance to make up wages lost during the state-ordered shutdown. Other states have earmarked some of their relief dollars specifically for rent assistance, including Wisconsin, which has set aside $25 million for that purpose.
Data from Eviction Lab, a group of Princeton University researchers, shows Indiana did not fare well in housing security even before the pandemic. Fort Wayne had the 13th highest eviction rate in the nation. Indianapolis was 14th worst.
With less than four weeks before the state eviction moratorium is lifted, Gov. Eric Holcomb must step up now to eliminate the financial insecurity facing so many renters. The more time available for tenants, landlords and the agencies and attorneys negotiating on their behalf, the better.
Tenant Assistance Legal Clinic at Indiana Legal Services: (260) 424-9155
Brightpoint: (260) 423-3546, ext. 567
Find trustee contact information at allencounty.us/government/community/allen-county-township-trustees
Additional resources at cityoffortwayne.org/evictions