The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, January 25, 2022 1:00 am

Renters' rights

Push lawmakers to help those facing eviction

Tracey Hutchings- Goetz

On Christmas Eve, Bartholomew County tenant Randy Shelton received a devastating phone call: His landlord told him he had to be out of his home by the new year or face eviction.

Randy had applied for emergency rental assistance from the state, but his application was denied because paperwork from his former employer never arrived.

Having previously been homeless, Randy had struggled to find a place to rent with one eviction on his record.

The stress nearly sent him to Veterans Affairs for emergency medical care.

While Randy was able to move in with his son in Shelbyville, his experience is all too common.

More than 80,000 Hoosier rental households have been subject to eviction filings during the pandemic. Many hundreds of people are evicted every week. In the same time period, Minnesota, a state with a similar population, had 6,945 filings.

So, why is Indiana so bad?

Indiana laws are extremely favorable to landlords; renter protections here are among the nation's weakest. For too long, a handful of lawmakers and real estate speculators, corporate developers and landlords who fund their campaigns have blocked common-sense protections for renters against landlords who jack up rents and destroy affordable options.

The pandemic has made a bad situation worse. The Indianapolis Star found that 88% of evictions in Marion County during 2021 were filed by corporate landlords, not mom-and-pop property owners.

Indiana's pandemic eviction crisis has received a great deal of attention and buckets of money.

Yet the rental assistance program and Indiana General Assembly continue to fail Hoosiers. During the pandemic, the federal government gave Indiana $845 million for rental assistance.

But evidence suggests our state has only used a small fraction of this money. The money hasn't kept Hoosiers such as Randy in their homes.

How could Indiana receive so much money and still fail?

The Indiana court system was charged with meeting this crisis. A task force that was formed to get input from stakeholders, develop a pre-eviction diversion program and accelerate distribution of Emergency Rental Assistance funds included collectors and the Indiana Apartment Association, the very people who profit from eviction.

And so the committee did not recommend that courts require that landlords participate in emergency rental aid programs for avoiding evictions. The state may ultimately have to return federal aid dollars that could have kept Hoosiers in their homes.

As the 2022 Indiana legislative session began, we still faced an eviction crisis because of laws that put the profits of corporate landlords ahead of Hoosier families.

Whether white, Black, or brown, we can all agree that every Hoosier deserves a safe home. We must work together now to demand that Indiana's General Assembly tackle the imbalance of power driving the evictions crisis in Indiana and that we reform the emergency rental assistance application process.

Hoosier renters need a strong bill of rights. This would include 1) a strong pre-eviction diversion program with mandatory landlord participation, 2) the right to an attorney for renters in evictions, 3) enforceable “habitability” standards, 4) the right to withhold rent to force repairs and 5) eviction expungement.

Unfortunately, little legislation to tackle this crisis has moved forward so far.

Hoosiers, call your legislators today and demand they take more action to protect Indiana's 2.5 million renters. Ask them why they do nothing as evictions mount across our state. Remind them they can and must do better and that you will be watching.

No matter the color of our skin or the contents of our wallet, our families deserve safe homes they can afford. We must protect renters to prevent more homeless Hoosiers.

Now is the time to come together across our differences and across the state to help keep Hoosiers in their homes and rewrite the rules to protect tenants.

Tracey Hutchings-Goetz is the communications and policy director for Hoosier Action.

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